Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Economic Benefits of SAHMs

Several months ago someone posted this very thoughtful response to a woman who saw herself as a moocher because she hadn't contributed financially to the household.  I highly suggest you read the post.

Since I read it, I have had this post swirling in my head and today, after rereading what cannot be possibly real from Amy Glass , I am finally putting the thoughts together.

As a woman who works and travels a significant portion of the year (100 days or so) I feel like it is not those SAHMs, but rather I am actually the moocher off of these women.  Here are some representative examples:

  • If I can't make it to soccer practice because I have a conference call, it is always a woman who is home with children who rescues me
  • I get texts from these women who remind me about events at the school and get me signed up for volunteer opportunities I would have missed otherwise
  • My children see these women as attentive and happy mothers and therefore my children have a positive experience with women who are at home in order for them to genuinely see it as a choice a woman can make
  • Women who are at home with children during the day teach top quality dance and gymnastics classes at an almost embarrassingly low rate, just so kids in the neighborhood (like mine) can have the opportunity
A picture taken by one of my SAHM friends when I was out of town on soccer picture day.  Guess whose kid doesn't have a uniform shirt?

I am not the only one who benefits from these women, my entire community benefits.  The schools in the area have enough parent volunteers to provide an entire army of reading pals to support a school reading program for struggling readers to get extra help.  These same women are fundraising, carpooling to sporting and music events on behalf of children who are not their own, and volunteer hundreds of thousands of hours in soccer, the library and a half dozen other local programs.  

The city of Orem, in fact, has a pool of free, educated, skilled hands that are ready at a moments notice to help out.  Cities with large numbers of educated at-home mothers have access to local resources in ways that government spending can never compensate for regardless of the amount.

We are as a community, in a word, rich.  And often I wonder if the money that I earn working isn't as valuable as the time that these women volunteer.  I am not donating that kind of time to the community, I am simply reaping the rewards.

It is this reaping that makes me a moocher, a parasite on the women who without even blinking help me raise my children.

I do, however, also have some hope that these women benefit from my work as well.  I financially contribute to these same activities, maybe even a little more out of guilt for not being there in person.  I, too, am providing a role model of a woman who makes a choice.  A choice to work not for the money or because I have to, but because I feel a sense of purpose and love my profession.  I also believe that what I learn in my job I share with my community and I hope in small way that this is seen as a contribution too.

I think this whole mommy wars thing is made up.  We live symbiotically and collectively contribute to our children together. If there is a war, though, I might have to switch teams and hang out with the SAHMs because I bet their food storage is more organized.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Preference for Extroverts

Last night I attended what the junior high calls "Student-led Conferences."

This is an evening in which your child puts together a sampling of work from all of their classes and is to explain to you, the parent, how they are doing in each class.  Once examining the work, it is then up to the parent and child to determine which teachers to see and which questions to ask.

I have experienced this several times before, but yesterday I felt something I have never felt before as a parent: systemic preference towards one of my children and almost total indifference towards the other. Why tonight?  Because I saw my children through the eyes of teachers in a very personal way and the way that we as parents don't often see: through comparison to other students.

I scheduled both of my children at the same time as it would be most convenient for me, and I roamed the halls of the school with the two of them.  The evening started out truly delightfully for me--I sat in the band room (my daughter's home room) and enjoyed chatting with the kids while waiting for the band teacher.  I had a moment when I looked around and could not be prouder of who they are, regardless of grades.  Their personalities are so enjoyable, I was looking forward to hearing about their strengths as well as gaining some evidence to help encourage them both to do better. When we spoke with the band teacher, she clearly knew my children by name and was able to articulate what they were doing well.  After reviewing the work of my younger child, we then headed to the home room of my son, who is in his last year at the junior high.  In contrast with his younger sister who excels in the system and takes pride in showing her work, my son did not have his folder so I was unable to see any samples.

The evening went downhill from there:  the art teacher praised the "artiste" and was enthusiastic in her praise of my daughter.  This same teacher, I remembered, two years ago with my son, did not recall his name, though he loved art class as much as my daughter, and the woman did not engage in conversation with me about him or his work.

We went to my daughter's science class who enumerated her many assets as a learner while my son's science teacher did not appear to know that he was even in the Honors Biology course and instead handed us the directions for a different class assignment--two grades lower.

The English teacher for my daughter asked why she was not in GATE while my son's English teacher was unaware that my son is a regular though slow and methodic reader and the method of reading every two weeks has been hard for him.  

What struck me the most at the event was how little difference I see in their intelligence--my son is clever, a wonderful thinker, and though he does put in less effort, I would still imagine that others would enjoy his company and quick wit as I do, regardless of a relatively lower desire to complete assignments on time.

Thank goodness for math, the great equalizer, in which by some amazing grace has a teacher who appears to genuinely care for him and know him as an individual and my daughter's math teacher has only recently returned from maternity leave so was unable to speak to her status as "an amazing student."

I imagine that I might have left the school merely thinking that my daughter was a better student than my son (which I knew already) but I ran into a quieter young lady and her parents at school.  She is an incredibly hard-working individual and has a straight and hard-earned 4.0.  I asked her parents in the hallway if they loved coming to these events because the teachers all just raved about how great their daughter is.  The parents shrugged and said yes but the teachers had all suggested that she "speak up more and participate." Really?  She has a perfect score in all of her classes and this is what the teachers say to this child's mother?  But at least they had some feedback--I looked around the rooms full of parents and students and saw patterns of vague recognition, kids whose parents had driven down to the school and got rather blank stares from some of the teachers.

As I was reflecting upon this with  my children in the car, I became further and further agitated that in fact, the teachers considered my daughter a good student not because of her hard work and tenacity, but because she is an extrovert.  The descriptions of her included "great participation" or "works well in groups"  or "is very social."  "Articulate and well-spoken."  While I am proud of my daughter (and I was just as flattered as she was by these praises) I also want her to recognize the latent privilege that her outgoing personality allows her in the school system.  I don't want her to continue to attend school and believe that she has somehow earned her amazing success as a student because in fact, her teachers simply like her and how she socializes with adults and her peers in class.  She has been doing it since she was three years old, and it hasn't taken a lick of effort for her to get these apparent "skills."

I began to wonder how self-perpetuating of a cycle this has become for my son.  At an early age did he realize that because he was not raising his hand, approaching his teacher, or articulating his thoughts in an impressive way, he was not a class star?  And did he then determine that it didn't really matter?

After all, he did not appear perturbed by this experience and I imagine he has for the last 9 years watched his peers praised for similar efforts while he sat in the class as an anonymous sea of faces to the teachers--with rare exceptions.

As an extrovert and a willing participant myself, I know that it has helped me to be successful and I would not have the job that I love so much if I were not comfortable in my own skin in public settings. And do I want my son to have these attributes so he can be successful in navigating the system?  Of course!

But I also want a school system that values each child's strengths and while I don't think he should be singled out as some kind of prodigy, I would like to walk into a classroom and have a teacher smile at me and say "I know your child.  And I have specific information about him, should we discuss it?"

I want a system in which the skills that actually matter--the confidence, the gleam in the eye, the enthusiasm, the creativity--these skills are developed and graded.  If my son can be in your class for two months and you don't really have any specific information about him that you want to share with me, shouldn't you as a teacher question the structures in place that allow this to occur?

I know what a teacher reading this might say:  "Student Load!  I have 200 students, I can't keep them all straight!  Too may things to do.  I have test scores I have to keep up."  I know you do.  And I want you to know that as a parent, I protest this system on your behalf as much as I do on mine.   This isn't personal, this isn't about you, it is about the systemic structures at play that allow this to occur. You might actually dislike student-led conferences more than I do, the expectant faces of a sea of only semi-familiar faces of students whose parents are coming through to grill you about the grades that you believe in perhaps even less than the rest of us anyway.

But I have a proposed cure for this: if you have to have a grade, why not actually count the things that matter?   If you are going to praise my daughter for something that you are neither teaching nor assessing and call her a "good student" we might want to ask the school why teachers aren't teaching and assessing those skills for the dozens of kids just like my son who apparently lack any real skills worth mentioning.

If the point of school is to merely reinforce that certain skills are more valued in society than others, than please, for the love of a mother, can we help my son to develop them too?

Because my son, if he survives his secondary education, with his perfect attendance and dogged consistency is going to be someone too.  And my daughter, who can do it without you, doesn't need to be reminded that with her winning personality she can skate through your doors with little effort and you will love her anyway.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Homework (sigh) and College

My 14-year old is in 9th grade.  This is a big year for him, a year in which his grades count.

Like hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation, I am getting tired of saying "why didn't you turn in x" or "work on your homework."

I have heard the arguments for and against homework, I have read research for and against homework, I even heard Alfie Kohn speak to homework at a work conference a few years ago.  But nothing has prepared me for what I would personally experience as a parent.

Things like...

*Going to open house at school and hearing the phrase "He is a smart kid, he just doesn't do his homework"

*Watching him come home at 8:30 pm after an hour of soccer and an hour of karate and trying to convince him that after he does his chores he should prioritize doing this homework.

*Having conversations as a family about how to manage your time more effectively--instead of playing video games right after school for hours, do your homework first and then do the fun stuff.

*Getting that weekly email from the school with a list of missing assignments

*Wondering how I allow my children to develop agency without limiting their choices in the future

The truth is, my son can get bad grades.  It isn't going to hurt him tremendously to go to a community college first for a few years, for much cheaper, and then transfer to a 4-year, especially if he has no idea what he is interested in studying.  He could even get a GED and then go to community college for that matter and I am pretty sure he isn't going to have THAT low of grades.  Does it really matter that he doesn't take a "middle class" trajectory to go straight to BYU or some other place?

And yet.  Will he later feel like we would have been a little more vigilant?  More structured?  Will he grow up with no sense of discipline?

The stories you hear about people who have discipline did not grow up in homes where parents said "whatever."

So how do I find the balance?  Is there even an answer to this question?  Do I allow him to make his own choice at age 14?

Or do I sell him the American Dream a la middle class?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

For Posterity (and Rainy Days)

We've had bad luck with our kids.--they've all grown up.  
-Christopher Morley

Yesterday I woke up to a lovely poem on my nephew's 17th birthday:

This is what my nephew looks like now:

Yikes!!! I think I am getting older because I am in the same place these days.  My son is only 14, but I am feeling a similar nostalgia about him aging and going away.  I am recording this today as proof that having 4 small children actually pays off at some point.  I remember when a friend of mine had her first baby she said something like "You know before I had kids, I thought it was going to be 90% and 10% fun.  But when I actually had a baby, it turns out it was 10% work and 90% fun."  When she said that I thought she was so sweet but a little crazy.  It IS 90% work!!! 

But now, now that my youngest child is in kinder, I am getting there.  I still feel that my younger kids are high levels of work--they are always wanting things like food and help finding shoes.  But my older children, wow, what a sweet payoff.

They used to ask for stuff.  When they were this size:

But lately, when they call and ask "hey can I stay at my friend's house?"  I feel like saying "No!!! come hang out with me!!!" But I don't really have a reason to say no, so I just say "I guess.  Be home by 5:30."  

Because this is what it is like to hang out with them now:

And the feeling is bittersweet--because just as I like them more, they like other people more.  Just as I want to hang out with them and play games or watch youtube videos of stupid music videos from my childhood, they want to come home late from doing more fun things with their friends.

Soon enough, these wonderful little children will become actual adults and move out while I will be left wondering why I found cooking dinner such a chore after all.

I suppose having 4 children at least gives me a little extra time because while they are still asking for stuff and needing stuff, they are getting pretty fun too:

And even now, as I am posting this, I am worried about my kids' grades, their friendships, and developing the spirituality in my children.  But when Jenny posted her poem about her oldest child, it gave me a fleeting glance into my own future in which I am reluctant to let my kids go, I am devastated that they are leaving me and my first act as an empty nester is to show up on the doorstep of some poor child of mine and say "Hey, come home and watch this Jimmy Fallon bit with me."  

And their roommates will look them in the eye and whisper "Make sure she takes you food shopping while you are out."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Girl's Camp

I spent a week at camp Mia Shalom:

It was the first time in a long time that I went an entire week without technology.  The first little bit I was actually imagining the chime of my IM or the feel of my phone on vibrate, a phantom phone.

But once I settled in, it was kind of painful to come back to society.  I missed my husband and children of course, but since I had one of my children with me:

I think I could have stayed another week.  A few things came out of my experience:

1) I want to learn how to build an awesome fire.  I think I am going to try to take the family camping, just so I can burn a huge fire.  A man came with us for the week to help us out and he was like, the firestarter of the universe.  One night I think we used somewhere around 60 logs for a single fire.  It was epic.

2) I like teenagers.  I was reminded of why I liked teaching, all the beautiful opportunities you have to actually teach something in a small moment and the very immediate reminder about whether it worked.

3) I like being around other women.  We had our own cabin for leaders and it was so nice to just hang out sometimes.  

4) I like working.  If it seemed like something needed to be done, it made me happy to do it.  I preferred cooking and cleaning to sitting in all cases.

5) Camp food can be awesome.  Our camp director was the best meal planner, the way she organized food for 30 people without batting an eye (and with leftovers) was kind of crazy.  We had Cafe Rio imitation chicken, we had a J-Dawgs hotdog (Costco hotdogs with J-Dawgs sauce), and a serious dessert every day.  It is a miracle I only gained 2 pounds.

6) I love singing.  I wish we sat around and sang with guitars more.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Most of you know that Steve has been home with the kids for most of our marriage--not that he hasn't had plenty to do as a full-time student which he has been for much of that time, but he has also taken on the responsibility of being the primary care giver in our home for the days I am gone or when I am home and on the phone (which seems like a large percentage of the time.) This year, he had to step it up as a full-time student dissertating while I pursued a Master's Degree and was gone even more than normal.

One might wonder what Steve does when I am out of town.  Does he cook?  Clean?  Do the dishes?  Laundry?  What kinds of activities does he do with the kids?

In a world in which we still make a big deal about men who know what to do with their kids, it can surprise people to know that I never do laundry yet it is always clean and put away and there are no piles of dirty clothes around.  The children are not starving when I come home as evidenced by their yummy chubby faces and the dishes seem to be just as clean when I am here as when I return from being gone.

As for the activities, this is where his parenting gets a little questionable.  Often when I come home from being out of town, I encounter strange new possessions that arrived in my absence.  Things like this:

I know that some of you recognize the life-sized bear from Costco.  We own one.  Actually, we own two:

My sister-in-law suggested that they look like passed out frat boys in the middle of the night (you may recall a similar post I made about it awhile back).

These bears also have a little friend that arrived later one, a little  big stuffed sheep.  I tried to take a pictures so you can get a sense of scale, but the thing is larger than a standard pillow.

These large stuffed animals are a nuisance, but never before has something shown up that has been as disruptive as these three two ratoncitos. 

They purchased three but Steve decided it was one too many and returned one without consulting the girls, it was very traumatic for poor little Gillian

In a sad turn of events, however, one of the little rats got very ill with pneumonia and a side of my beloved husband came out that reminded me of why I married him.  He put the rat cage in the bathroom and turned up the water to provide a steam room for the sick rat.  And in spite of his eternal cheapness and the lack of return on his investment ($5 dollar rat: $50 vet trip) he took the sick pet to the veterinarian to make sure that the animal was cared for properly.  In watching him make sure this little animal was going to survive, I couldn't help but forgive all of his crazy antics when I am out of town. 

To you, my love, on your birthday, thank you for all that you are to our family.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Beauty and the Teen

A friend of mine posted an article on the facebook today entitled How to Talk to Little Girls.  Certainly I concur with the author's point about the problem facing young women and an overemphasis on beauty.  It also sits well with me to encourage a young woman to develop her other talents and develop her mind.

But what bothered me a bit was to hold back enthusiasm about the adorableness of little girls because seriously, how can you not rave about someone that looks like this:


And when your natural instinct to express your love for how much she gives you joy to see her, witholding that enthusiasm and giving into a "don't you love to hike?  I do!" doesn't quite convey how much it pleases you to see her face.

But what struck me the most about this article is that it neglects the research that I believe to ring true--that the main influence on a young girl's body image is in fact her relationship with her mother as well as her mother's own body image.  Do these young girls seeking ways to be more beautiful have mothers who are completely satisfied with their own looks (not sure this is fair to ask, is any woman?)

I read an article years ago about the influence of a mother's body image and got some great tips:

  • Praise your own body in front of your daughter by saying things like "don't I look good in this swimsuit" or "doesn't this color look pretty on mommy?"  
  • Avoid saying things like "I am fat" or referring to your dieting practices. 
  • Stay focused on health
I will admit that this was very difficult for me at first, not really feeling like "mommy looks pretty in a swimsuit" ever.  And, perhaps looking at this cyclically, my mother had a very tortured relationship with her own body image and constantly complained that she was overweight--at a mere 120 lbs.  I have never once in my life looked at my body with any level of satisfaction.

But wanting to try something new with my own daughters, I have worked very hard to appreciate my own looks in front of them.  I feel that this has been very successful and the level of confidence my oldest daughter has is tremendous in comparison with where I was at her age a quarter of a century ago.

This whole theory was tested last week when my 8-year old, watching me zumba to a youtube video, asked "Mommy, did you ever think that you were fat?"


But rather than shout my true feelings, I did what any good mother does: lie.

"Well, honey, I see other women, like in this video, and I know my body does not look like that.  What I try to think about is keeping my body healthy with good exercise and healthy eating so that I can feel good about myself.  So I try not to look at other women and notice what I look like in comparison with them."

She seemed pleased with my response--I had to really refrain from asking her why-- I am not sure if she was asking me because she was worried about her own body or if she was thinking that I looked kind of fat, I just didn't have the mental space to handle her answer if she said "well you are kind of bigger than those girls" when I was in the middle of sweating up a storm to lose those 7 grad school pounds.

I have come a long way, baby.

The main point I wish to make here is that refraining from telling a girl she is beautiful because you do not want to reinforce what society says only works if everyone else is fighting that battle too, specifically, her mother.   But we cannot pretend that beauty is going to be less important over time if we all just stop complimenting young women on their looks.  So I propose a compromise, next time you want to squeal in delight at the young curly-haired girl at the dinner party:

1) Stick with a focus on the talent as the primary goal of the conversation
2) Still tell her she is beautiful, for what harm does it do for her to believe it about herself?
3) Compliment yourself in the conversation so she sees role models who are confident

Imagine this modified version of the conversation:

"Look at this beautiful child!!! What are you reading beautiful child with the yummy curls?  I LOVE books too."  And when she says that she reads books all by herself?  You say "Are you kidding me?  You read a book by yourself?  Age 5?  That is completely awesome and actually pretty rare." 

And as you are telling her about the book you wrote, the success you experienced as a professional woman and your favorite color somehow comes up, why not throw in a "...which is why I wore this green dress because really, don't I look fabulous?"

I want girls to understand that their talents, intellect, and hard work are key to confidence and identity. But I also want them to feel confident enough in their looks to allow them to put their talents on the front page and hearing other women say that they are beautiful (even when we perhaps are not) seems to me to be a much better way to respond to our own instincts about complimenting a cute face while raising healthy girls.