Thursday, December 12, 2013

'Tis the Season of Ho Ho Ho and Bah Humbug

It's that time of year again. The ho ho ho and the bah humbug all wrapped up together in a giant red bow. The joyful half of the Christmas holiday and the I'm-feeling-stressed-out part.

I would like to say that they land gently like Santa's sleigh on a roof. But, seriously now, we all know that isn't true. They arrive with freight-train-like force the minute Thanksgiving ends, if not before!

As the classic song goes, "It's the most wonderful time of the year." Indeed. I love Christmas and all its trappings. Well, most of them. I could do without the tacky decorations and heavy commercialism.

As a Christian, I understand the meaning of Christmas and appreciate the holiday for its religious roots. As a mother of young boys, I play along with the secular side. Santa Claus and The Elf on a Shelf come to mind, for example.



 
Yet there is so much more to the holiday that bombards our senses in the month of December and earlier. Christmas items start showing up in pharmacies and department stores right after -- or maybe it's on -- Halloween. At least by early November anyway. It takes off from there.

Shiny ornaments, Advent calendars, silver garland, chocolate reindeer, outdoor lights, an oversized inflatable snow globe, holiday cookbooks, etc. You name it. Somebody has thought of making a buck out of it because Christmas is very big business for retailers.

Just like with Thanksgiving, you'd better start thinking about your plans for Christmas well in advance -- especially if you want to travel somewhere by plane or stay at a resort.

If you are married, you may get together with your relatives or your spouse's kin, the ones you didn't see over Thanksgiving. If you are divorced, you may be turning your kids over to your ex, which may cause you some stress because you'd rather have them. And if you are a single mother by choice like me, you are solely responsible for producing festivities for your children on a scale larger than one month earlier. (Actually, Thanksgiving was late this year. Make that less than one month earlier.)

This year I have something very special in mind for my sons to celebrate my tenth anniversary of full-time single motherhood. I'm not going to write about it in this post, but look for it soon. Christopher and Charlie know what it is, and to say that they are excited would be a gross understatement.

However, my happy anticipation comes hand in hand with added pressure in the area of preparation. Early preparation, that is. In an effort to have it all come together seemlessly, we are making collective sacrifices that save me time and money.

Good.

At this point in the month, I had hoped to have our Christmas photo card ready and our newsletter written. Half of the 100 mailings to family and friends should have gone out by now. Uh, can you say "wishful thinking"?! Just like last year, I am way behind. Nothing's been done yet. Nothing. I'm not sure who got cards and newsletters or just cards from me in 2012. But it was precious few, that's who!

Nevertheless, I do know how it happened. From the start of the school year, I lost control of things, including my paperwork. I had too much on my plate when September commenced, and I simply couldn't catch up. (Just so you know, September and June are the toughest months for parents of school-age kids because moms are asked to volunteer for this, contribute to that, sign up for this, and buy that. September comes with a caffeinated JOLT following summer's more leisurely pace while June is exhausting because it's the month to wrap up the entire school year.)

Sigh.

Today's parents, particularly mothers, are stretched way too thin. They work, take care of their families, and keep their homes in order (or at least they try). The Christmas season brings them joy and celebration, brightly colored presents, snowy-night parties, caroling, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (both the Boris Karloff animated and Jim Carrey live-action versions), and so much more.

However, the festivities come loaded with expectations -- of getting and decorating a tree, buying gifts for everyone on their list by December 24th, and whipping up a feast with flair.

Take a deep breath. One. Day. At. A. Time. And please don't forget to sip egg nog with your friends.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving: When No Plans Are the Best Plans

Thanksgiving is my most challenging day of the year.

It's the day my dad suffered a near fatal aortic aneurysm when I was in college, and it's the family holiday more than any other that reminds me how little family I actually have. But mostly it's the day the media delivers me the message -- more like hits me over the head with it! -- that I am supposed to be attending a large gathering of loving kin. Well, crap. If you haven't already, read last year's post ("Why I Love My Thanksgiving Angels," 11/26/12), and you will understand why I dread the day yet feel immense pressure to produce happy plans for my deserving school-age sons.

This year, not receiving an invite to someone else's party, the onus was on me as it has been many times before to come up with something or several somethings.

We'd already done the go-to-the-historical-society thing and watched a turkey being cooked the colonial way . . . and learned during the event that -- despite my being told twice by two different people -- the excruciatingly slow-roasted bird could not be eaten by the visitors that day but instead would be taken home by a staff member! We'd already broken bread with other Thanksgiving weekend tourists at one of Plimoth Plantation's elaborate sit-down meals, and I did not want to spend a lot of money at one of the few area restaurants serving that day. What's more, my sons had already participated in a Turkey Trot in our town that I believed wasn't being repeated. (I learned after the fact, unfortunately, that one did take place. Someone else was in charge.)

Sometimes, though, figuring out our plans is just a matter of keeping my ears pressed firmly to the ground.

Finally, we are free on Sunday mornings. So we've started going to church. I have been wanting to take my boys for some time, but several things have stopped me until now. First, Christopher had to report to his football games the morning of the Sabbath. Secondly, I didn't know which church I would choose. I conducted a brief "church search," as I call it, a few years ago but wasn't completely satisfied with my findings. This summer I took my sons to an anniversary reunion in Maine at the Christian Science camp both my mother and I attended for many years. Predictably, Christopher loved the experience, and we got to spend a couple of nights sleeping in a cabin at the brother camp to boot. My oldest son wants to go to the camp next summer, yet in order to do so he must attend Christian Science Sunday School and learn the religion's basics. And, thirdly, I was concerned about my younger son misbehaving in Sunday School. I needed to wait until I felt he could control himself during instruction.

On November 24 -- our first-ever day in church and Sunday School as a family! -- I took mental note when the First Reader at the area Christian Science church announced that there'd be a service on Thanksgiving. Better yet, it would be a testimony meeting.

Bingo!

Honestly, I can't recall the last Thanksgiving service I attended . . . or if I've ever attended one. I grew up in Christian Science but have not been a regular churchgoer for more than half my life. However, I am familiar with Wednesday evening testimony meetings my mother brought me to during my childhood and youth. I remember liking them. Church members would voluntarily stand one at a time and recount a personal story involving a prayer healing, or they would just give thanks to the church and God.

In fact, I believe my early exposure to testimonies informed my decision years later to become a memoirist. Indeed, I have always loved hearing or reading captivating personal stories, especially when they have a deeper meaning or a transformative message.

I was intrigued by the idea of going to church on Thanksgiving Day and anxious to talk to my sons to see how their first experience in Sunday School had been. Well, it was a great success! Couldn't have been better, actually. Charlie had been a model student. What's more, the boys' teacher was a friend of mine -- someone I went to college with and a former colleague at the Christian Science Monitor many years ago. Let me go as far as to say that I am responsible (or partially, anyway) for her still-intact marriage! Back in our CSM days, she asked me to join her on a group ski trip to Colorado. Her future husband whom she had just met was going, and she wanted a girlfriend with her to act as wingwoman. (This was long before the term was even coined.) Since I love to ski, it didn't take much persuading at all.

E and P now have an adopted Chinese son in third grade. Did I mention my sons are in fourth and second grades? So Christopher and Charlie attended Sunday School with Sam and had fun playing with him in the toy room and outside after the service. Several years ago we had a real playdate with Sam. It was my turn to call E for another, but she knows I am extremely busy with my sons as a full-time single mother. Regrettably, the call never got placed.

My boys were on board with a Thanksgiving church service! I suggested a playdate afterward, but E has a lot of family in that town so she was beholden to them to help prepare the grand meal. Totally understandable. We made plans for the next day. Chris and Charlie were happy to see Sam on Thanksgiving morning and perfectly fine with going straight home afterward in order for me to get our meal ready.

Since it was just the three of us, there was no point buying a whole bird and cooking it in the oven for hours at a time. I served the boys pre-cooked and -packaged turkey thighs from Market Basket, cranberry sauce, couscous, peas, sourdough bread, and berry pie with Peppermint Bark gelato for dessert. Everyone agreed it was all very yummy.

The next day we met E, P, and Sam at a renovated park in a nearby town. Gabe's Run, a large memorial 5K and one-mile fun run, was under way. I had wanted fleet-of-foot Charlie to join the latter, but he wanted more time playing with Sam. Who could blame him?! After an hour or so outside in the bitter cold, we all decided to seek warmth at Bertucci's. Surprisingly, the boys and I had never been to this particular location of the chain Italian restaurant, though it is right next door to the Starbucks I frequent several times a week.

With our neighbors gone for the weekend, the boys had the cul-de-sac all to themselves -- a great and welcome rarity. They rode bikes and a scooter and jumped on a pogo stick before building a giant leaf pile in the backyard and jumping in it. Watching them play together so nicely on the quiet street and behind the house made me feel very happy.

We went to church again yesterday, which happened to be the twenty-seventh anniversary of my father's death. This time E split up the boys for instruction. Charlie and Sam have similar rambunctious energy levels, so she took them. P taught Christopher, a laid-back child of ten going on fourteen.

Meanwhile, I took comfort in the church service. I'd been going through something very tough the previous week and had found some stress relief from housecleaning. (I know. You've never read that in my blog posts!) I'd only told one person besides my sons what had happened, but on Thanksgiving Day I spontaneously and tearfully confided in a complete stranger at church who turned out to be the First Reader's wife! I believe she may have told her husband because the hymn selection and the readings from the podium he's responsible for seemed perfectly designed for me and my current challenge! Whereas I'd been a tearful mess on Thanksgiving during the service, yesterday I held it together like a stiff-upper-lipped New Englander . . . that is, until the singing of the final hymn. How did the First Reader know it was my all-time favorite because it spoke to me like no other?! Before long, my face was soaked, and I was reaching for a tissue in my purse. (I came prepared this time.) As the words "O captive, rise and sing, for thou art free;" and "For every tear to bring full compensation, To give thee confidence for all thy fears." washed over me -- I couldn't sing them myself as I was way too choked up -- I realized that this weekend coming to an end had proceeded exactly as needed.

After the service, we raced home. Charlie was finally going to be in a fun run! Third time's a charm. The boys changed their clothes. I grabbed some snacks -- no time for lunch -- and drove to the Jewish Community Center thirty-seven minutes away for the Dreidel Dash one-miler. Despite the distance and being Christian, we are JCC members because I love the large outdoor pool, the other athletic facilities, and the affordable price. Chris decided to run as well, but I couldn't because I still have plantar fasciitis.

Following the event, we went inside for the Thanksgivikkuh Celebration's Hanukkah party. I ate way too many latkes with applesauce. Seven or eight? Charlie painted a wooden dreidel, and we listened as children were led in the singing of beautiful Hanukkah songs.

We hadn't taken a big trip (and likely gotten stuck in traffic or bad weather). I hadn't had to endure tactless or ignorant comments or misplaced judgments from distant relatives who haven't seen me in countless years. And I hadn't needed to worry about my sons possibly becoming bored or failing to connect with kin they'd never even met.

We had a relaxing, low-pressure long holiday weekend filled with healthy fun, good food, and spirituality. Though we did not spend the holiday at someone else's house, this year I gained yet another new Thanksgiving Angel in E.

Doing our own thing this Thanksgiving weekend turned out to be just right. 




Friday, November 22, 2013

Hopes for the Next Decade

Freedom from less dependent kids
Freedom to regularly exercise
Freedom from frequent exhaustion
Freedom to have a social life.

Freedom from schedule overload
Freedom to find a relationship
Freedom from as much child care
Freedom to travel.

More visits with family and friends
More reading of books
More going out in the evening
More feeding of the soul.

More organized
More tidy
More svelte
More chill.

More time alone
Less with a scrambled brain
More privacy
Less on my plate.

More in control
Less harried
More relaxed
Less hurried.

More quiet
Less chaos
More comedy
Less drama.

Greater reach
Greater success
Greater follow-through
Greater income.

Fewer sibling fights
Fewer life upheavals
Fewer neighbor problems
Fewer curve balls.

Freedom from
Freedom to
More
Less
Greater
Fewer.

Please, God, just smoother
Smoother
SMOOTHER
SMOOOOOOTHER.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Ten-Year Send-Off

I woke up on Halloween, the first day of my next decade of full-time single motherhood, riding a serious high.

My son's tenth birthday party the day before had been a roaring success. I had created a The Amazing Race-like scavenger hunt through town for seventeen fourth graders in four teams.
After eating pizza in the gazebo at our town's harborside park, I sent the boys out with their first clue. Accompanied by a few adults who wanted to come along, the boys visited twelve businesses where they were asked to collect something (e.g. a home-listing flyer at a real estate agency), answer a question (at a restaurant: How much does the Goat Cheese Crostini cost?), or perform a task (pump up a tire at the bike shop).

Do You Know Your Town? That was the theme of the quest.

The last clue brought the boys to Dunkin' Donuts where they were told to buy a hot chocolate then to bring it back to the park. I calculated exactly how much money each team would need for the warm beverages and enclosed the dollar bills and coins in envelopes. (Upon returning to the gazebo, one team reported that they'd been one penny short. Apparently, someone had purchased a large cocoa instead of a small one, and that had thrown calculations off!)

Ah, kids. They are so funny.

I brought out a The Amazing Race-decorated cake, which quickly got half devoured before I thought to take a picture, then I gave everyone a can of Silly String or temporary hair dye. Most of the boys got the former, but Target didn't have enough Silly String on the shelf to meet my need. "Please take your can home. It's for Halloween tomorrow," I said.

Fat chance.

I defy you to show me a fourth-grade boy who can resist going wild with one of those cans in a public park surrounded by his friends! The boys reported having a blast at the party, and it made me very happy to watch them laughing and running around freely without a care in the world. When I later asked Christopher how the party stacked up to others he'd attended or I'd held for him at locations such as Chuck E. Cheese's, a laser-tag facility, a bowling alley, etc., he said it was tied for first place with the one he went to at Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park near Boston.

Sky Zone is where he wanted to celebrate his birthday, which conveniently fell on a half day at school. (Parents are pleased when this happens because it means they don't have to deal with busy weekend sports schedules when planning. And kids are happy because there's something extra special about being able to celebrate with your friends on your actual birthday.) However, I had been wanting to hold a scavenger-hunt party for Christopher for a long time. And ten is the perfect age to introduce one.

In third grade, kids who live close to our elementary school are permitted for the first time to walk to school unsupervised. Fourth grade can bring a little more independence such as venturing around our very small town in the company of friends. The boys would enjoy the bit of freedom my party afforded them, I reasoned.

I explained in great detail how the party would work in an e-mail to parents, and I believe a few of them bowed out due to not feeling comfortable with its parameters. Others, however, elected to come along or agreed to be stationed in the town to help me maintain order and safety.

Safety first! Always No. 1 in my book.

I have a soft spot for scavenger hunts. It started during the summer of 1984 when I took a post-college whirlwind trip to Great Britain and Western Europe. One of my stops was Mainz, Germany, where a college friend was living at the time. She had studied in the city along the Rhine River her junior year and had returned after graduation to work.

With a hilarious German friend of hers as the driver, she took me on a scavenger hunt through the countryside in cars. I can't remember if someone else was in the passenger seat, yet I do know Jamie and I were in the back. I also can't remember exactly what it was about the driver -- his accent speaking English or the off-the-wall things he said or, probably, both -- but Jamie and I were laughing hysterically the entire time. In fact, I remember very little of the actual hunt other than it was extremely difficult. Of course, it was impossible for me since I don't speak the language!


Anyway one goofy task was to cook a potato. How the heck were we going to do that out on the road? Our driver thought to put it in the car engine. Strange, but that's all we could come up with. As it turned out, we did quite poorly in the competition. Probably too much laughing and teasing our driver! The winning team, incidentally, managed the potato challenge by pulling over at a roadside restaurant and asking to have the spud cooked.

Ingenious!

When I returned from the trip, I threw a scavenger-hunt party for my friends out of my parents' house in Darien, Connecticut. Again I don't remember much about it because it was a very long time ago, but I did send the teams to the city next door via train! Imagine the horrified looks on my friends' faces as I watched them board the New York City-bound commuter rail. Priceless. No harm done. I picked them up at the Metro-North station in Stamford.

Lol.

Originally, I envisioned Christopher's birthday party scavenger hunt starting out of my home. Since my place was not picked up, however, I thought we could get away with setting up base camp at the park. October 30th is fairly late for an outdoor party in northeastern Massachusetts. Still, it had been a gorgeous month, so I was hopeful the weather would hold up. Well, wouldn't you know it? It rained that morning. But I was in way too deep to postpone the 12:30 p.m. adventure. We would all just have to suffer through it together. Eureka! The precipitation stopped at 12:29! The air temperature and wind also weren't too bad down by the water.


We were in luck.

Capping off Christopher's ten years in this way was great. But that wasn't all. That night my son got the gift of a lifetime when his beloved last-to-first Boston Red Sox won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Thank you, David Ortiz, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, etc.! It was a stellar game marked by incredible play by the home team and the first time since 1918 that the Red Sox have won the World Series in Fenway Park. I let Christopher stay up to watch until the bitter end even though it was a school night.

Boston Strong all the way!

The only way the day could have been better would have been if we had attended the game in person. That would have meant missing late afternoon football practice, however, and his brother Charlie wouldn't have been able to go trick or treating in costume at an event at a nearby college. Charlie needed this treat because he hadn't been allowed to go to the birthday party. I didn't feel comfortable sending my seven year old around town unsupervised, so he went to the school's wonderful after-school program where he painted a scary death mask. He was fine with missing the party, and I was most grateful that he understood.

The day worked out perfectly. What a splendid way to finish off ten years!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The First Decade: Amazing!

A decade of full-time single motherhood. Wow. How does one wrap that up in one simple blog post? It's a daunting task. I'm sure I will forget important details, weight some experiences more heavily than they should be, or perhaps even misrepresent the message I want to send. But here goes.

Cheers to the first ten!

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan, who featured me in her New York Times Magazine cover story "Wanted: A Few Good Sperm" (3/19/06) on choosing single motherhood via artificial insemination, predicted that my experience raising two boys without a support network would be "grueling."

Indeed, it has been that.

If you asked me what one word I would use to best describe the past decade, I would choose "overwhelming."

When I think of grueling, Army boot camp or medical school come to mind. Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster trifecta were overwhelming. But single motherhood? Lots of sweet hugs. Bedtime stories. Giggles and growth milestones. Grueling? Overwhelming? Damn right. Of course, neither word is what I had hoped to select to characterize my life since October 30, 2003, my precious first son's birth day. I'd much rather it had been "wonderful," "joyful," or "fulfilling."

Please don't get me wrong. I love my sons with all my heart. They are terrific boys -- handsome, smart, athletic, talented, loving, enthusiastic, inquisitive, social, funny, compassionate, generous, and so very much more. We have had countless fun times together doing a myriad of things at home, in our area, or away on a weekend or vacation. The boys fight, though less than they used to. Occasional fighting is to be expected. They are brothers after all. Still, we are a happy unit. Yes, we are. As I knew it would be -- and that is why I decided to try to become a single mother in the first place -- my experience with them has been wonderful, joyful, and fulfilling most of the time.

However, raising from birth on up two children close in age -- boys who are temperamental opposites, no less! -- when you have no family members to call on for practical help by definition means your life is going to be difficult . . . at least for the first few years. In my case, it has been much longer.

From the get-go, I was blessed with a good first baby. "Christopher is so smiley!" exclaimed a college friend who had encouraged me to have a child on my own after the finding-Mr.-Right-at-the-right-time thing failed. Others praised my baby-handling skills and asked me if I had multiple children. I found this hilarious because I was completely clueless about caring for an infant. It was just a testament to the kind of baby I had.

Nevertheless, there were problem areas. One was getting him to nap. Once down, he was capable of sleeping in the middle of the day for four hours, but it was extremely tough to get him to fall asleep when the sun was out. Another was my living environment -- a ground-level apartment in a noisy building with a scary tenant at a major intersection in a sketchy neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yada, yada, yada, we moved to the suburbs when Christopher was just under fifteen months of age.

Finally, peace and quiet! Well, not exactly. I bought a townhouse on a densely populated street with tight parking. The woman who owned the home next door routinely blocked me in then didn't take it well when I had to ask her to please move her truck so I could get out to purchase my toddler milk and food because a snowstorm was approaching or was already under way! Yada, yada, yada, it got to the point that I had to visit the police station because of the criminal activity being perpetrated against me by this woman, who flaunted her untouchability due to being a prominent town employee's wife.

Oh, please!

So we up and moved to yet another community, our present one. I had been seriously worried that word would get out about this woman who, not surprisingly, was rather unpopular in the townhouse association. Fortunately, though, I found a buyer after several months.

Phew.

By this time, my second son -- a colicky-baby-turned-rambunctious-toddler -- was almost fifteen months old, and I was several years into chronic fatigue syndrome due to extreme sleep deprivation. (Did I mention that I'm an insomniac? The poor-sleeper kind, not the no-sleeper kind.) Dizziness? Check. Headaches? Check. Ringing in the ears? Check. Crabbiness? Check, check, check. EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME? Check. What is that? Google it. It's hearing a loud bang while sleeping. A type of hallucination, it can be (and was for me) accompanied by paralysis during an attack. Most people who report an out-of-body experience say they had one of these attacks preceding it. Thankfully, I didn't reach that stage.

Yet I was so exhausted for such a long period of time that I actually thought I might die. I certainly didn't believe I could recover! There were nights -- not a lot of them, probably a handful -- when I felt myself fading while trying to sleep. I don't mean falling-asleep fading, which is what I wanted. I mean a type of fading that really frightened me. I didn't want to fade in this way. I had to exert a great deal of effort to jolt myself alert to, it felt like, stay alive. I'm sure this sounds completely looney, but that's how far into the nether regions of exhaustion I had come.

Unlike his brother who had been sleeping through the night consistently since two weeks of age, Charlie was a wretched nighttime sleeper and completely abstained from daytime naps unless he was at day care or riding in my car, neither of which helped me one iota to get any rest at all. The situation was made much worse by my ill-advised decision to co-sleep. Nursing or not, Charlie woke me every three hours for a full two years before I finally got him out of my bed on my second attempt. Then it took another six months for him to adjust to his own bed. As if that wasn't enough, he also gave me chronic vertigo after breathing in my ear while suffering from a virus during the time he slept with me. Needless to say, I am one strong anti-co-sleeping advocate!

In short, as good (easy) as Christopher was, Charlie was equally bad (difficult). Even the doctor who delivered him said: "He beat you up inside."

In addition to the two home moves, I also lugged half my belonging from a storage unit on Boston's South Shore to my then-North Shore home. The stuff had been dumped in the unit because it didn't fit in my Cambridge apartment after I moved back East from Seattle in early 2000. Problem was: it clogged up my townhouse pretty quick at a time when I was stocking up on yet more baby gear for Charlie's arrival. Then while still breastfeeding him, I singlehandedly cleaned out and later sold a distant cousin's large but very poorly maintained Vermont house across a lake from Canada.

Yes, Canada, for Pete's sake!

Finding child care has been a huge challenge from the beginning. In the early days, it was part-time help I sought to relieve me of 24/7 caregiving. I required breaks to both keep me sane, enable me to attend my grad-school class at Emerson College, and do my homework including my thesis.

Since I elected not to go the nanny, au pair, or full-time-babysitter route, my task was to piece together the bare minimum of help here or there as I needed it. As you might guess, creating a jigsaw puzzle of occasional coverage had its issues. Anyone who has ever tried to use many sitters knows what I'm talking about. There's the flaky sitter, the careless sitter, the mouthy sitter, the irresponsible sitter, etc. The situation caused me so much aggravation that I basically gave up once my kids entered a school that offered good extended care. That became my answer. Still to this day, I rarely use paid sitters. I choose instead to rely on the elementary school's wonderful after-school program during occasional late afternoon hours and mother friends whose sons play with my own at other times of need.


Getting my home into and keeping it in a presentable condition has been a nearly impossible task for me. That is due to many factors: 1. I am not by nature domestic. 2. I have way too much stuff. (In 1995, I also singlehandedly cleaned out my parents' house, the one we lived in for thirty-one years). 3. I don't like spending much time in my home due to years of neighbor ugliness. 4. I am too busy with other aspects of my life. Multiply all of these reasons by a factor of 100, and you will get a more accurate feel of what I am up against every single day.

Now that I have reached TEN YEARS -- yahoo! -- I can look back on my trials and tribulations and give myself a huge pat on the back. Am I proud of myself for the job I have done? You're damn right I am. And nobody's going to tell me otherwise. My boys are happy and thriving. We have our struggles like any other family, of course. But they have taken a turn for the better. Chris and Charlie get along very well at home now . . . most of the time. And when they don't, I spring into action to separate them. Other times that is not even necessary because I, the sole referee, have correctly anticipated a coming conflict and taken immediate measures to thwart it.

I have learned a lot about parenting and, in particular, parenting my boys with their unique challenge of having dissimilar personalities. Christopher is innately sensitive and sweet while Charlie is aggressive and tough. Christopher likes alone time; Charlie wants to constantly interact with others. I could go on and on about their differences. Suffice it to say, the pediatrician hit the nail on the head when she declared: "Shelby, you have the most opposite full siblings of the same gender in the same family than I have ever seen."

Indeed.

It's been very difficult, yet our family is working. We have our moments, but they are fewer than they used to be. That's because I have bent over backward for my boys for a solid decade. I have poured myself into them. And I ride them when misbehavior crops up. Sometimes the message has to be delivered over and over again, but they are getting it.

Looking back, I am blown away by so many things: I am amazed I ever bounced back from five years of chronic fatigue syndrome. I am amazed after two and a half years that I ever got Charlie to sleep through the night. (Incidentally, he has been a terrific nighttime sleeper for the past five years. I have NO issues at bedtime or getting-up time whatsoever with either one of my sons.) I am amazed at how well I have extricated myself from bad neighbor situations in the past. And I am amazed at how well I have been able to cope with hostile neighbor relations in the present. I am amazed at how successfully I have handled two moves to new communities, one move of storage-unit contents, two home purchases, and two home sales (one practically in another country!).

Mostly, I am amazed at my beautiful sons. Life has not been easy for the two of them given all of the troublesome situations I have had to deal with alone in the past decade. Yet they have rolled with the punches with no or few complaints, and they suffer no ill effects from them. One son is now five feet tall, and the other placed seventh in the New England Junior Olympics in the 100-meter dash. I could sing their praises to the high heavens and beyond. Heck, I still can't cook or get the house clean! But my boys are devoted to one another and me, and we have a blast together . . . especially when we go away camping for days at a time.

I am a different kind of mother. A kind of mother I didn't originally want to be. A single mother by choice it's called. Still, I have made the best of it, and my sons are testament to my hard work. Reaching the ten-year point makes me elated. It feels like a much more momentous milestone than simply turning fifty, as I did two years ago. That was just about reaching a certain age; this revolves around marking something really important -- the achievement of raising two children through the first decade completely on my own from conception using, first, intrauterine insemination with anonymously donated sperm and, later, in vitro fertilization with the same sperm.

Since we are on the up and up, I want to conclude by amending "grueling" and "overwhelming" to "growing" and "overcoming." Those two words I like so much better, and they more accurately reflect what is going on in our household today.

It has been amazing. Simply amazing!

So a big Happy Ten Years to me! A huge Happy Tenth Birthday to Christopher! Let the celebrations continue!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Self Care: A Mother's Salve

Motherhood is wonderful, but it is also grueling.

If you are a mother, then you understand what I'm saying. The hours on the job are tough -- twenty-four per day. (Last time I checked, that's every hour in the day.) The job description is extensive. It ranges from breastfeeding (or bottle-feeding or a combination of both) to potty training to assisting with homework to breaking up sibling fights to picking out kids' clothes to throwing birthday parties to teaching morals to cleaning the home to changing the sheets to driving to sports practices to attending awards ceremonies to navigating transitions to new schools to helping a child suffering from an eating disorder or one victimized by a bullying situation and on and on and on. Obviously, the skill set needed to perform this job is wide and diverse.

No wonder motherhood is considered the hardest job in the world!

How then is a mother supposed to get what she needs -- a break, alone time, comfort, nurturing, etc. -- when all she seems to be doing is giving, giving, giving to her young ones?

Well, if she has a husband or other significant other, and it is a healthy relationship, she can get much of or some of what she needs from that person. A listening ear, a foot rub, a night of dancing, an offer of dish drying or lawn mowing. If she does not have such a loving partner in her life, she may turn to a trusted family member living close by or a special friend who has a knack for making her feel good when she's stressed out, overwhelmed, or just plain old tired. Or perhaps she can soothe herself thanks to the collective efforts of several people in her circle.

But the fact remains: every mother should consciously practice self care because motherhood is an unending marathon that requires energy, patience, pacing, and replenishment. Unfortunately, the experience -- like life itself -- is not created equal from mother to mother.

Indeed, some mothers seem to have it all. Self care is built into their schedules. They are members of a women's tennis league. They are diligent about treating themselves to a massage. Their husbands take them clothes shopping. (Yes, I actually ran into someone I know on such a spree a few months ago!)

For most of us, however, it takes some level of effort to make self care happen. Calling in a babysitter. Forgoing most of a lunch break in order to take a walk. Sacrificing an expense in order to splurge on a facial.

Self care takes many forms:

It can be physical. Eating well. Getting exercise by running, practicing Pilates, playing a sport, or having sex, for example. They make the body feel good, and they lift the mood. With regularity and proper eating, they help the body look good as well.

It can be emotional or psychological. Talking to a close friend over coffee or having a psychotherapist session can do wonders for the spirit. Then there are other things one can do -- and each of us knows what they are or are still discovering what they are -- that help to bring us up from a dark place. For me, some of them are sleeping in a tent, downhill skiing, gazing at Impressionist paintings, and swimming. Being one with nature, being exhilarated in the crisp mountain air, being moved by artistic beauty, and being "baptized" in cool water have a transforming effect on me.

Now that's good self care!

It can be spiritual. Listening to a moving sermon or hymns being sung at one's beloved church. Praying. Meditating.

It can be charitable. Making a donation -- monetary or otherwise -- to someone or some group in need. Writing a check to the American Red Cross. Offering the gift of time to a worthy cause. Paying forward baby clothes and other items to a new mother. Giving to another person out of genuine kindness and with no expectation of getting anything in return is marvelous self care because of the warm feelings that result within.

It can be intellectual. Stimulating one's mind with thought-provoking conversation by attending a political forum or book group.

Self care should be a regular part of a mother's life, especially a single mother whose responsibities are many and whose resources are few. At a bare minimum, she should practice it in at least one form every single day. Ideally, many forms many times a day, but few of us have the time for that. And during those especially tough spells -- when a child is sick or injured, when work is extra stressful, when there's a death in the family, etc. -- it becomes essential as a way to try to keep the equilibrium.

I am recently coming out of one of those highly exhausting, pressure-packed, and soul-crushing periods. Nothing short of an all-out self-care blitz was needed to balance me out! In the space of about one month, I indulged myself in among other things a haircut, a manicure, a facial, an intensely focused session of Rainbow Loom bracelet-making, a solo visit to an annual fair, a long walk along a fall foliage-beautified bike trail, a tete-a-tete with a dear friend during a playdate, and a new pair of running shoes.

It's called loving one's self from head to toe. Do it. Just do it! Do it as often as you can because your mental health is dependent on it, and your children are dependent on you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ate Their Veggies

"Eat your veggies!!!" Isn't that the battle cry of all moms of little kids? Johnny doesn't like carrots. Suzy won't touch green beans. Their mom is tearing her hair out, fretting how her munchkins are going to get enough alphabetic vitamins.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you know I have many challenges as a full-time single mother of two school-age boys. There's the aggression. There's the disagreement on games to play. There's the volume. There's the unwanted scorekeeping. And on and on.

But I am proud to say that persuading my sons to eat their vegetables isn't one of my challenges. Chris and Charlie are very good consumers of the green stuff (and orange and yellow, etc.) They really are.

Hey, I'm as amazed as anyone. What is my secret?

Well, for one thing, I am not a cook -- or much of a cook anyway. Seriously. So I don't try to hide broccoli in fancy, flavorful sauces. I haven't read -- and don't intend to -- Deceptively Delicious, Jessica Seinfeld's book on tricking kids into eating their vegetables. I don't peruse articles, blogs, or comments on the subject. And I don't collect recipes or ever read food magazines, though I am currently getting Cooking Light in the mail because I signed up for three glossies the last time I registered Chris for football. (Thought it might be helpful to have but still haven't even opened one issue!) I do make an occasional chicken stir fry, though, and I throw a lot of vegetables into the wok along with the soy sauce.

No, doing the Julia Child thing as a way to convince my nine year old and seven year old to say yes to leafy greens is not my style. Quite the opposite.

When Christopher was a toddler, I stood in front of the frozen vegetables section at Shaw's and faced a choice: broccoli with cheese sauce or plain broccoli. White corn with butter sauce or without. Peas in butter sauce or just peas. What's with all the butter sauce? On face value, it was a mundane decision, but somehow I instinctively recognized that it was a momentous decision. A decision with consequences. A decision that would set the course of things to come. I was choosing between the tastier (and more fattening) version and the less palatable yet healthier option.

Odd, but I had a precedent of sorts. In the days of formula-feeding Christopher when I was away from him -- I breast-fed at all other times -- I opted for the tougher-kid approach: no bottle-warming, even in winter. My son turned out to be an eager milk drinker and very healthy baby. I never regretted my course of action (and I saved myself the cost of a bottle warmer).

Yes!

Likewise, I chose the tougher-kid option there in the frozen-food aisle. I bought only plain frozen vegetables. If my son was going to learn to eat vegetables, he was going to LEARN TO EAT VEGETABLES. No namby-pamby melted cheddar cheese smothering them. No silky smooth buttery concoction drowning them. My son could choose to dress up or down his vegetables any way he liked when he got older, but first he had to learn to taste the vegetables and like them au naturel.

Back at home, I rolled onto his tray next to his hot dog slices a handful of honest-to-God naked peas. He picked them up one at a time and popped them into his mouth. I can't remember if he made a face. I was in too much of a sleep-deprived haze in those days. But he did it. He ate the peas, and we have pretty much never looked back.

Here's my theory: if you don't know a bottle can be warmed, then you won't miss it if it isn't. If you don't know vegetables can be purchased with yummy sauce already on them, then you won't miss it when they come without. Give your child the real deal and skip the disguise.

Don't give your child any reason to have a negative opinion of vegetables. For example, don't say: "Try this. You might not like it, but it's good for you." Or "Spinach is not my favorite, but it might be yours." Just serve a small portion sans the editorial comments. Or, if you have to say something, make it positive. Me: "I ate so many beets when I was a child." Or try "What's summer without corn on the cob?" How about "Remember that yummy guacamole you enjoyed with tortilla chips at your friend's house the other day? Well, this is an avocado. Guacamole is made of avocado!"

It may not work. You could end up with sweet potatoes on your wall. But just maybe Suzy will surprise you. So why jeopardize your chances with negativity right out of the gate?!

Along the same lines, when possible avoid serving your child vegetables in front of people who might taint his or her opinion of them. You don't want anyone telling your child the squash on the plate is undesirable. Treat this as seriously as you do the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause. You jump through hoops to guard those secrets as long as possible to protect your child's innocence. Do the same with vegetables. You want to shield Johnny from the prevailing view of kids that vegetables are gross. This may be easier to accomplish for single parents who, like me, usually don't have other people around when serving their children. Perhaps, if you're lucky, your child may not find out until he gets to elementary school. And by then, hopefully, he will have learned to like some veggies enough that he won't care what his peers think.

Christopher is such a boy. He makes choices outside the status quo and proudly stands by them. Being an adventurous eater -- and that includes enjoying all manner of Asian food, seafood (even squid), sushi, and delicacies such as frog legs he's had the opportunity to sample at a family Club Med in Florida we visited for many years -- is one way my son marches to the beat of a different drummer.

Charlie, whose choices are more conventional across the board, goes with the flow very nicely, however, when we eat out at an ethnic restaurant or seafood place. He doesn't have a big appetite -- and, yes, he often selects a fried chicken offering (he is only seven, don't forget!) -- but he gamely tries new foods, including vegetable dishes.

Take your young ones to farms to see vegetables growing in the fields and for sale in the store. I've been taking my sons for years to Harvest Days and Farm Festival Days. They are really fun for the kids because they often also feature pony rides, hay rides, crafts, live music, etc.

Let your children check out farmers' markets. They can see which vegetables grow in their area and learn the importance of buying local and organic. Then go home with some purchases.

If you have the space, grow a garden of your own, or join a community garden if you live in a city. Two years ago I started a vegetable garden in our backyard. It has been very exciting for my boys each morning in the summer to check on the progress of our broccoli, lettuce, eggplant, cucumbers, and especially tomatoes. We grew several variety of them . . . with delicious results.

When you can, eat out at a restaurant that serves vegetables well. For example, we recently discovered one not far from our home that offers up the crunchiest and most savory asparagus spears I have ever tasted. They come alongside our favorite steak tips. A win-win situation! As much as I would like to (remember, not a cook), it is obviously not possible for financial reasons for most of us to eat out all the time. So make a good decision when you can dine out.

Put vegetables in dishes without hiding them. I like to throw green vegetables into plain white rice, brown rice, couscous, and ramen noodles. The latter two, courtesy of Near East and Maruchan, respectively, have the advantage of coming with flavor packets. But the point is: you can still see and taste the vegetables. They are not buried underneath a sauce and their flavor killed by the ingredients of said sauce. Bonus: since my boys have grown to enjoy vegetables plain, they actually prefer to eat them that way raw than with a dip.

I might have added mac 'n cheese to the above list. However, I've tried pouring peas into the bright orange Kraft variety, and both of my boys protested . . . loudly. I get it and agree, actually. Kraft mac 'n cheese is sacred to kids (and many adults, present company included). It is not to be tampered with. And, since I had to eat the pea-tainted batch because I don't throw food away, I will say that the veggies did alter the absolutely perfect flavor of Kraft's woefully unhealthy fun meal.

Pshaw!

For the past couple of years, I've been listening to and reading about on Facebook the wonders of the Crock-Pot. How it is so easy to just plug the thing into the wall and drop a bunch of food items into it for a certain amount of time then, voila, you have a tasty dish loaded with goodness. Now that's my kind of cooking! I think I will buy myself one this winter. (I know, I said that last year. Well, maybe it will happen.) Anyway, the Crock-Pot method seems like an ideal strategy for offering up healthy dishes kids would enjoy. Personally, I've always loved stews chock-full of beef, potatoes, and vegetables, especially in winter. They warm the tummy and comfort the child (or adult) coming in from the cold.

Try to refrain from obsessing over how many servings of vegetables your child gets a day. Generations of men and women have grown up just fine without counting their peas and q's. (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.) For the record, I don't count vegetable servings. I provide opportunities for my sons to eat vegetables, and they take the bait because they genuinely like vegetables. Your stressing about it will be noticed by your child and may very well compound the problem. Lord knows enough kids (and adults) suffer from anxiety around food issues!

Christopher chooses salad bar as his lunch choice at school on a regular basis. He's been doing so since kindergarten. And Charlie loves grape tomatoes as a snack. Last week when dinner wasn't enough for my hungry fellas, I asked: "How about some broccoli?" Both answered in the affirmative. Well, they consumed an entire package of Green Giant Broccoli Spears (no sauce) between them!

A few days ago, we went to a pizza place after football practice where the three of us usually choose the two-slice special. I felt like having something different for a change, so I ordered the chef salad. Charlie asked for a barbecued chicken sub, and Chris chose wings. When I finished my salad, my older son saw the two green pepper rings I had left on my plate. He asked for them and gobbled them up happily.

That's my boy!

I've found that it really helps if your oldest child takes to vegetables because the younger one/s will notice and very possibly emulate the first. With unwanted results, this is what happened for us in regard to swimming. Despite countless lessons at numerous locations -- not to mention from his frustrated former swimming instructor mother! -- Christopher refused to put his face in the water for many years. No way, no how. Charlie watched these protestations and this fussing and, much to my chagrin, took them on himself. Now had my second child not witnessed his brother's behavior, I'm convinced, he would have had a different experience learning how to swim. Alas, as a full-time single mother, I was unable to shield him from Christopher's lessons. Charlie had to come along because I didn't have any other child care.

That's just the way it goes sometimes. Okay, all the time.

It's called doing the best you can. Maybe it's swimming. Maybe it's vegetables. You can't reach perfection in every area of parenting. You can only try to approach the challenge in a positive, pressure-free way. Easier said than done on occasion. I know.

Don't I know!