Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On Having Best Friends

I have been lucky in my life to have many best friends rather than that one single best friend (well, okay, I do have a single best friend, but we are the kind of friends that haven't lived within reasonable driving distance since college and she is running her own internet party these days while I am traveling around the country making our overlap time limited).

I refer to these other friends as my LOCAL best friend because each place we have moved, I have had a special friend in my neighborhood that has permanently changed characteristics about myself.

These women are amazing individuals like..

Amy through whom I have lived vicariously as she travels around the world doing good.  I think she is currently in Brazil trying to push women's soccer while teaching science to adolescents.

Kate who taught me about volleyball, art, and a positive attitude in every circumstance.

Shima, who I can't really talk about because she is an internet recluse and probably doesn't want me to use her real name.  I at least can share that she is one of the most generous people I have ever known.

Amanda who cannot be pinned down on social media because she is in the real world floating around serving friends and neighbors constantly in spite having five children and an extraordinarily large number of talents that are in high demand.

Katie who can walk into a room, learn obscure facts from everyone in the room, and then leave without having shared a single tidbit about herself.  She taught me that genuine curiosity and interest in another person makes a soul feel loved and cared for like nothing else.

My undisputed local best friend since moving to Utah has been the amazing Diana Larsen.  Since today is her birthday, I wish to dedicate the rest of this post to her exclusively.

Here she is in all her glory on the Pioneer Trek.  The perfect way to honor her as it represents a time in which, in spite of her busy schedule, dropped everything to help me get ready:

Moving to Utah Valley is really hard.  I mean, if you have a large family, it is an astoundingly wonderful place to raise children and beautiful as it can possibly be.  It is not difficult in the sense that life is hard, but because everyone has a large extended family and therefore no time for friends, it takes awhile to break in to the crowd.

Diana is an exception to this rule.  Not in the busy factor--she has a large extended family that lives locally and she even cares for her nieces and nephews on most days of the week.  She lives in the same neighborhood where she grew up and knows everyone in the zipcode. If you go anywhere in public with her, you are likely to run into several people that she has known forever.  Where Diana is an exception is that she befriends you instantly.  She doesn't actually care what you know, who you are, how weird you are, or where you came from--she is in.  She is in your inner circle and she doesn't even think twice about whether you deserve it.  You could be a stranger in the grocery store and after five minutes of chatting with her in line feel like you have this magical new friend.

What I find particularly intriguing about Diana is her tireless dedication to the community.  In the few years that I have known her, this is what I have seen:

  • School service.  She attends PTA meetings and signs up to help out, not just projects to put in your time, but ongoing.  She has volunteered in every possible way at the local elementary school and I wouldn't be surprised if someone actually handed her a master key one day.
  • Church service.  Diana is the president of our Young Women's organization currently--but she continues to volunteer to help out in any way needed.  With ten minute notice she is up and running with a plate of goodies, a meal for 60 people, or collecting a minion of helpers who know they better show because she has shown up for them so many times.  For the last five years, she has also led the efforts for the week-long Girls Camp and is incomparable.
  • Constant attention to her family.  While she is off giving service to everyone and every organization around town, she never stops thinking about her kids.  She picks and drops them off from school everyday (Diana, WHY do you do this??) She provides them with constant enrichment like sports and art classes, schedules fun outings for every holiday and weekend, and is generally one of the most nurturing mothers I have met in spite of a wicked sarcasm that runs through her daily dialogue.  See this shot of a typical fun night for the Larsens.  Note they aren't just at a game, they have to have those crazy glowing lights too.
  • Feeling bad for everyone who is struggling.  I have received more than one call from her saying "let's just run over and do x for this person, I feel really badly that I haven't done anything yet." She feels this way about the entire neighborhood, for whom she feels a real sense of stewardship and duty.
  • Loving every kid she knows.  Any time someone comments negatively about a child that she knows, she usually just says "I LOVE that kid.  He is hilarious."  She feeds the high school kids at lunch, hosts playdates nonstop and generally speaking always has a kid around.  My daughters are constantly asking if they can just go "hang at Diana's" as though she is one of their personal friends.  
I am grateful for all of these things that she demonstrates to me on a regular basis, but she is also the first real friend I have had who has earned her education through real world application.  All of my other best friends I met while in college, teaching, or grad school living and therefore were more formally educated.  Diana is one of the most intelligent women that I know and she has come by her skills by hard work and her own two hands.  

When I first got to know her, through Girls Camp one year, I felt so inadequate--she had this set of skills that I definitely had not developed in my article-reading/podcast listening world.  She was able to whip together food for a crowd in minutes--and the food tasted amazing.  I always thought you had to spend a lot of money to get a decent meal, but she somehow manages to frugally provide an enviable spread.  Yet she is always willing to let others help.  She never once said "hey idiot, don't you know how to work a camp stove?" but instead simply showed me how to do things.  I credit her 100% with my solo camping adventure in which I slow cooked ribs in a dutch oven over coals (her equipment of course).  I even incompetently provided her 9-year old with a slippery, freshly-sharpened chef's knife to open a package of bacon and he promptly sliced his fingers--but she forgave me because she is that kind of friend.  It isn't just the food--her event management, planning for activities, thinking about how to let other people develop, and general ability to have fun in a crowd sets her apart.  

I cannot say enough about what she has done for me personally, taking my kids here or there, reminding me about school events, dragging me places that I need to, but don't always want to go, or letting me know about a community event.  We have been on marching band field trips together, served side by side at some scheme or other, and enjoyed a few traditions of our own making together.  

I am so thankful that she is a "more the merrier" kind of person that welcomed me into her fold in spite of my excessive travel and I know that I have forever been changed because of her presence in my life.  Happy, happy birthday Diana.  Try to think about yourself for a few minutes today. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dr. Fleming, I presume?

With little fanfare, Steve finished his Ph.D this term.  We haven't really celebrated in any big way and we haven't discussed the excitement it adds to our lives to have an actual, real doctor of Philosophy in the house.  

But the deed is done.  The degree in which we have invested our marriage together is now complete.  

Steve is in the process for searching for a job in between working on two books and regularly sharing his research and thinking online but in the end, it turns out that it has been about much more than that.

So here, in celebration of Dr. Steve and all that we have obtained through this process, is a list of things that we have learned while seeking the light at the end of the tunnel:

  • The dad knows his children.  Not like "what is your favorite color" but things like shoe size (this is a big deal, ask the dad what the kid's shoe size is, very little known fact).  He knows books they have read, their preference in movies, and what they will and will not eat.  These are the things that moms usually know.  Because of his flexible schedule and my work, we have been able to create an at-home dad environment to the point that our youngest child thinks that normally dad's stay home and clean the house and mom's go off to work.  Nature v. Nurture mystery solved.

  • We live with family.  What started out as a temporary solution to "where in the world is less expensive than Santa Barbara" turned into a convivienda  with the kids' grandparents.  We don't need to live here, we don't have an economic reason to live with Steve's parents, yet we find the experience to be tremendously rewarding.  More Americans should live with family, it just feels connected in a way that most people don't ever get to understand.  How many people get to take a spur of the moment trip to Yellowstone with their grandma because you happened to be upstairs when you mentioned you were going in two days?

  • Steve is smart. Not in the "hey smarty pants" kind of way but in the "I know LOTS of stuff about stuff".  I have seen this graphic several times and whenever I encounter it, I chuckle.  I think it kind of feels true for a lot of people.  But the thing is, Steve also knows things like what is going on the world of politics, sports, entertainment, and Disney Corporation history. The man is a walking encyclopedia--so it only makes sense that he would have a Ph.D

  • My lovely, lovely job.  Without Steve's program I would never have taken this on and never would have found the magic of a professional calling.  I have a team that I work with and love, dozens of other people that tremendously important to me and to my world, and I had no idea that I would love it so much.  I love working in schools and the satisfaction of knowing that what I do can make a difference.

So what is next for the Fleming family?  Our lifestyle seems to be holding strong.  We are waiting for various options for Steve as he continues to author his way through and I work doing what I love most to try to change the world.  If anything changes, we will let you know.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Parenting: Doing it Wrong

I am capturing this weekend here to record some memories that I know will fade with time.  I am noting it both to remind myself later that parenting is hard (since I barely remember the parenting of toddlers which looks extremely difficult when I see other people do it) and to reflect on what I am starting to know about myself.

This last weekend I went camping up to Mirror Lake (photo album here) with some friends.  Stephen is on the home stretch (defends dissertation on August 29th) so we left him home and I took an additional kid with me.

Camping is lovely, wonderful, and a revelation to me in my adult life since I never really experienced it as a kid. More on why I love it later.  But camping alone with children is more difficult, mainly because I have failed to teach my children how to work hard.

When we arrived, the kids did not just naturally help me--while they were helpful in setting up the tent and getting sleeping bags, it ended there.

I was paralyzed by inability to get my children to do very much work and as a result, I felt like I was just walking around in circles doing a lot of nothing. The dinner that we had, shish kebobs, were undercooked because I couldn't get the fire to stay alive and I didn't really pack any oil/fat that would survive at high temperatures.  Fortunately, it got dark rather quickly and we were forced to end that part of the evening.

That night we played some games and the next day while waiting for our friends we played more games.  That part was truly enjoyable--and made me feel so grateful for camping and breaking away from technology, the bane and blessing of this modern existence. The kids connected with one another, we had great conversation, we sang endlessly (while playing Encore) and enjoyed our great and spacious tent.

Great and Spacious Tent:

When our friends arrived, we had a lovely evening together, though it further reinforced a few issues:
1) My kids were more motivated by eating sugary foods than doing any activities.  Watching my children sit in their chair and try to order siblings/other children around was hard to stomach.  Did they learn this from me?  Do I sit around and order them to bring me things? 

2) Meg wanted to change into warmer clothes so I sent her to our camp around dusk too look for it while my friend looked at me and said "you are not going to send your daughter in the dark to be abducted and have some stranger steal her into their tent."  I realized, as she was saying that, how little I think of dangers for my children.  I don't worry about things like that for my 5-year old and what is wrong with me that I don't? 

3) I walked down to the camp with Meg only to discover that I had failed to check her bag and she only packed sun dresses.  With spaghetti straps.  No long sleeves, no socks.  We had a sweatshirt and capris, and that was it.  That was it!! What kind of parent lets a 5-year old go camping up in the mountains without warm clothes???

4) The next morning, I asked my 10-year old to open a package of bacon with a rather large knife.  She came back a few minutes and said she couldn't open it.  Our friend's son volunteered, and I handed over the recently sharpened knife to the kid (9 year old).   He slipped while opening the package and sliced his hand to the point that both of his parents needed to leave the camp to take him to the emergency room.  Stitches :(

5) In the middle of the chaos, my children started to bicker with each other.  They were so rude to one another and critical of each other that the other children even started noting it "you are even worse than we are."   I tried to get them to stop and finally sent my son to the car to sit by himself.  He came back after 45 minutes in a much better mood--but why do they have to fight so much to begin with? How does one teach children to get along well.  Isn't that the point of taking them on family trips?  To see each other outside of the regular home life and develop relationships with one another?  Another fail.

There were other issues, other good times--but the sum total for me was to realize how disorganized I am and how little I think of these little parenting things.  Is this because I have worked always? Is it impossible for a person to be both an excellent worker dedicated to a profession but a master parent?  

My house is messy, my children don't really know how to work--will they ever?  I can't say that I had any sense of success in my parenting this weekend and it made me wonder if it is too late for me to fix these things.

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."