A Call to dads

I know I said I’d address expectations for others’ behavior and how others may not have the same rules in their heads that we do in my next post. That will actually be next week. In the meantime, with Father’s Day this weekend, several bits of info popped up from the internet and I just couldn’t resist a comment.

So many couples get locked into the same roles they observed in their parents: mom was the kid and home maven, and dad earned the money. Over at CNN.com this week is a stellar message for stereotypical dads on what they are missing, inviting dads to “wake the hell up.” Even better, there are specific guidelines on how to step up. The benefits for kids of an active, involved father are huge, from increased vocabulary to healthier male-female relationships in adulthood. Read that column here, and please share it widely. And a heartfelt thanks to writer Jeff Pearlman for his honesty.

Not only do kids and moms need dads to be equal partners in the muck of day-to-day parenting, it seems that 65% of dads actually want that as well–while admitting that they don’t participate equally. Read a summary of that research here.

Who says dads have to stay stuck in these ancient patterns? Let’s challenge those assumptions this Father’s Day–and throughout the year. And moms, that might mean, when dad steps up, you have to let him do it his way–remembering the mantra “what matters is that it’s done–my way or not.”

Happy Father’s Day!

Regroup on life’s winding path

There’s an old story about the young bride and the ham. Cooking a ham for the first time, she lopped off both ends of the ham, threw them away, and put the ham in the pan to bake. Her husband questioned her–what was wrong with those pieces? They looked perfectly fine to him. The young woman answered “my mother always did it that way.” Humoring her husband, she called up her mom to ask the reason. Dear old mom gave the same reply–her mom had always cut and tossed the ends as well. Working up the chain of grandmothers in pursuit of the origin of this supposed necessary step in ham preparation, great-grandmother finally had the answer: to make the ham fit in her pan.

Even if you’ve never baked a ham, you may be a locked-in creature of habit. Two examples have jumped out lately. In infancy, parents strive to meet the baby’s needs ASAP, jumping at the least cry or whimper. It’s true that babies who are fed on demand and picked up promptly when they cry become securely attached to their caregivers and even cry less. And of course we don’t want our children to be unhappy–ever. As kids grow, however, this strategy needs to evolve. If parents don’t teach children that a) others have needs too and b) waiting is sometimes necessary, we risk raising self-centered brats with no capacity to soothe themselves or delay gratification.

An achievement-oriented, perfectionistic drive toward life is another strategy to revise over time. Working toward 120% throughout school, even into graduate/professional training and establishment of a career, is rewarded because it leads to accomplishments. At some point, however, the value of this over-the-top drive reaches the tipping point. Continually working for 120%–or even 100%—is exhausting. We feel never good enough; we’ve never “arrived.” We don’t allow ourselves to savor accomplishments, in favor of life balance. And when we try to back off, because of the human tendency toward all or nothing thinking, we feel like failures. Either it’s 120%, or nada. We don’t know how to find that middle ground of perfectly good–or even excellent–versus perfection.

When we forget to question the path, the tradition, the long-held strategy, misery and frustration can result. Needs and goals change; steps to achieve those shift. Who says the old way is still the best way? More of the same is counterproductive.

When feeling stressed or stuck, challenge your strategy. Do something different for a change. At the Chopra retreat that I attended recently, leader Davidji, challenged us to write down an expectation we had for the outcome to a usual interpersonal encounter. We then flipped the paper over and had to write five other possible scenarios–mind-bending, in a challenging and good way. The next time your strategic habit is not working, push yourself to generate five new alternatives. And then apply a new solution, for a possibly pleasant surprise–relief!

Mother’s Day, part 2: The Invisible Mother

After I did the previous post, my sister-in-law sent me this. Just had to share.

It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way
one of the kids will walk into the room while I’m on the phone and ask to be
taken to the store. Inside I’m thinking, ‘Can’t you see I’m on the phone?’
Obviously not; no one can see if I’m on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping
the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see
me at all. I’m invisible. The invisible Mom. Some days I am only a pair of
hands, nothing more! Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this??
Some days I’m not a pair of hands; I’m not even a human being. I’m a clock
to ask, ‘What time is it?’ I’m a satellite guide to answer, ‘What number is
the Disney Channel?’ I’m a car to order, ‘Right around 5:30, please.’

Some days I’m a crystal ball; ‘Where’s my other sock?, Where’s my phone?,
What’s for dinner?’
I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes
that studied history, music and literature -but now, they had disappeared
into the peanut butter, never to be seen again. She’s going, she’s going,
she’s gone!
One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a
friend from England. She had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she
was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there,
looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to
compare and feel sorry for myself. I was feeling pretty pathetic, when she
turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, ‘I brought you
this.’ It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn’t exactly
sure why she’d given it to me until I read her inscription: ‘With admiration
for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.’

In the days ahead I would read – no, devour – the book. And I would discover
what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could
pattern my work: 1) No one can say who built the great cathedrals – we have
no record of their names. 2) These builders gave their whole lives for a
work they would never see finished. 3) They made great sacrifices and
expected no credit. 4) The passion of their building was fueled by their
faith that the eyes of God saw everything.

A story of legend in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the
cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird
on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, ‘Why are you
spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by
the roof, No one will ever see it And the workman replied, ‘Because God

I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was Almost
as if I heard God whispering to me, ‘I see you. I see the sacrifices you
make every day, even when no one around you does.

No act of kindness you’ve done, no sequin you’ve sewn on, no cupcake you’ve
baked, no Cub Scout meeting, no last minute errand is too small for me to
notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can’t see
right now what it will become.

I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of
the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work
on something that their name will never be on. The writer of the book went
so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime
because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.
When I really think about it, I don’t want my son to tell the friend he’s
bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, ‘My Mom gets up at 4 in the
morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for 3
hours and presses all the linens for the table.’ That would mean I’d built a
monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there
is anything more to say to his friend, he’d say, ‘You’re gonna love it
As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we’re
doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel,
not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the
world by the sacrifices of invisible mothers.

Share this with all the Invisible Moms you know… I just did. And remember to COUNT all those zillions of “invisible” tasks you do each day.

On failing to ask for help

“I don’t want to bother her.” “I’ll just drag him down.” “It’s my job to be strong.” “I don’t want to be a burden.” “I can do it myself.” Excuses abound for why we fail to ask for help–whether practical pitching in on chores or emotional support that could ease us through a tough spot in our lives. The cultural press, in this nation that so prizes independence, is to do it ourselves in order to not irk or stress others.

What about the flip side? Think about when you are able to support someone who is dear to you. How do you feel when you can listen, give a hug, or lend a hand? There’s lots of research expounding upon the psychological and health benefits of giving to others–in many forms. I’m sure that you are aware of the bonus for you when you help a friend or loved one. You get a little glow, a boost to your own day, from feeling valuable to another.

So next time you find you are shutting down, failing to ask for help or confide to a loved one because you don’t want to “bother” or “stress” them, ask “who says?” Who are you to deprive another of a chance to feel good by helping you? Put yourself in her shoes. For example, I often hear women say “I can’t ask my mother for help–she has so much on her plate.” Then reverse the scenario. If you had a daughter, wouldn’t you want her to ask you for assistance if she needed it? You’d want to be helpful if you could be–every chance!

Of course, when we are asked for help, it’s healthiest to give freely if we’re able–and to speak up honestly if we really can’t step in with an open heart at the moment. No room here for passive-aggressive giving shrouded with anger or resentment. It’s each person’s job to police her own resources, and say “no” if a request is not possible. That’s the job of the person being asked. It’s not for the person in need to ‘prescreen’ and second guess.

Give your loved ones a chance to show love and support–ask for it! Benefits all around will abound.

A self-care holiday?

The Irish have St. Patrick’s Day, and many of us non-Irish-types grab the coattails for inspiration. This year, are you in need of a celebration with less of a stretch? Then it’s time for National Mom’s Night Out(NMNO)! Inspired by Rachel Wright, author of Mom’s Night Out: Even Inmates Get Time Off For Good Behavior, the 5th Annual NMNO is March 17th. What a good excuse to practice skills I love to recommend, essential for all women: self-care, fun, and connecting with friends. So grab your BFFs, plan a relaxed or raucous evening, and enjoy the good excuse. You especially need it if your life feels like this, smothered in love:Funny Pictures - Cute Kittens
“Get Momma a Drink.”

Remember, it’s not selfish, it’s self-preservation.

A New Year’s message–tardy at best

Happy New Year to all my loyal readers . . .paired with a heartfelt apology about letting this blog drift so far down my ‘To Do’ list. I resolve to write weekly in 2011, as writing this blog is dear to my heart and adds vitality to my life. Back in November, when I was on my writer’s retreat, we did an exercise about archetypes that guide us. One of the cards which I drew reminded me that challenging the status quo, and deeply-ingrained beliefs about same, is an inherent value I hold. Which is, of course, why I launched this blog.

But how to inspire with new thoughts for the new year? I recently stumbled upon a set of silver charms that list five simple rules for happiness. I attached them to my keys, as a daily reminder to incorporate the steps:
1. Free your heart from hatred.
2. Free your mind from worries.
3. Live simply.
4. Give more.
5. Expect less.

Just feeling their weight in my hand reminds me to take a breath and embrace these principles. They’re a lovely example of what I’ve long preached, getting the concepts we want to ingrain in our brains to actually register permanently in our thoughts. Much less messy than Post-it notes.*

Listening to NPR’s Tell Me More this morning on my drive to work, rule #1 jumped out. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in the Arizona crowd is a tragic example of the need for us all, as #1 says, to ‘free our hearts from hatred.’ The show host,  Michel Martin, and her guest, Representative Paul Grijalva (Democrat, Arizona), addressed the rampant toxic rhetoric in our nation. They called for personal responsibility in returning to true debate about issues, rather than ‘demonizing the other side.’ Rep. Grijalva quoted Rep. Gifford’s, the target victim, i.e. that “words have consequences . . . they have meaning.” You can listen or read the transcript here.

Rhetoric like this is fueled by hatred. Too often, as individuals, we doubt our ability to affect our society or our lawmakers on a wide scale. As I’ve written elsewhere, we suffer from the soft bigotry of low expectations. But I believe, as Michel Martin and Rep. Grijalva point out, that we all can affect issues like this by calling on lawmakers to have a sense of ethics and personal responsibility. We can also affect this, on a daily basis, beginning with our own hearts. Continuing with the hearts of our children. We can take a deep breath and free our own hearts from hatred. Don’t engage in or tolerate the spread of toxic talk in society. Speak up against it. Teach your children to do the same. Step away from our growing immunity to violence, fueled by video games, movies, and TV. Crosshair symbols on a political website may seem like humor, while feeding the toxicity in our culture.

As human beings, we are all connected. Change begins with a single word, a single choice, to step away from hatred and violence. If we each clear hate from our hearts, and speak up about this issue, even in individual conversations, perhaps our loving hearts can spark a healthier trend.

*If you want to get your own set of pocket charms, and live in Dallas, you can get your own set for only $10 at the Dallas Museum of Art gift shop. Or astute reader Karen of Grace in the Gray Areas (check it out) found them on Amazon.

It’s the thought that counts

“It’s the thought that counts” is a popular phrase, used to extend the benefit of the doubt to others. Behavior CAN be less than stellar, but if intentions are good, we overlook minor transgressions. This is good. Relationships improve when we focus on the underlying well-meant effort, accepting that someone is simply human, busy, gave us an inappropriate gift, etc. Turn the phrase inward, however, and personal judgment rolls in. Women do this all the time, chastising themselves for perfectly normal, incredibly human thoughts. Thoughts like:

  • “I can’t stand this kid/partner/relative.” Guilt seems especially strong with thoughts about our children and mothers.
  • “I just want to run away.”
  • “I have everything I’ve ever wanted and my life still sucks.”
  • “I understand how parents throw a child against the wall.”
  • “I don’t care if I ever have sex again.”

Sometimes, it’s NOT the thought that counts. It’s the behavior. What counts is how we follow through, how we continue to love and care for others who frustrate us to the point of impersonating Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Go ahead–have a powerful internal scream. Embrace your truly human emotions. Cut yourself some slack about thoughts. Focus instead on actual behavior–big picture, over the long haul. You’ve thought of walking out of a store with your purchases rather than stand in a mile-long line, too. There’s nothing the matter with you, if you override thoughts and behave in the ways you aspire to, the majority of the time.

The passing of an icon

Barbara Billingsley, age 94, died Saturday in Santa Monica, CA. The actress was best known for her portrayal of June Cleaver, the cookie-baking, pearls-while-vacuuming mom of Beaver and Wally Cleaver on the classic television show, Leave It To Beaver. Every Mother’s Day, June Cleaver is voted ‘best TV mom.’ The character set the bar impossibly high for moms everywhere, causing many anxious, perfectionistic women to feel like failures, falling short of June’s level of calm, organized, wise domesticity. And June inspired me to write Even June Cleaver Would Forget The Juice Box to give women a tool to battle unrealistic expectations.

But June was not perfect. She only had to parent 20 minutes a week–and had a script writer to back her up. We could all do as well! In an early episode, June mutters to Ward, as she makes sandwiches for the boys, “I don’t like that Eddie Haskell. He said mayonnaise upsets his stomach, so I’m putting some on his sandwich.” Aghast! June was imperfect–with normal human emotions. This aspect of the character seemed to disappear as the show progressed, sculpting her into the icon she became.

Unlike June, Barbara Billingsley was human. In an interview, she once commented on the pedestal she’d been placed by her role, when she was just another working mother, fighting for her own work life balance. Thanks, Barbara, for sharing your best comedic and human self with us all through the character of June. May you rest in peace.

Wand target, #2

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons by Snaily

Theoretically, summer is waning. But with record heat all over the world, the season seems intent on keeping it’s hot little mitts on us awhile longer. With the dog days, it seems that the volume on the lament “these kids are driving me crazy!” raises a notch or two. Working outside the home or in, moms feel guilty when thoughts like that percolate in their heads. “I hate that I don’t like my children.” “I hate that I don’t love every minute of time with my kids.” “It’s summer, we should be having fun–and I can’t wait for school to start.” “I can’t stand them climbing on me one more minute.” The elevated expectations of summer, to orchestrate more fun for our kids, make many women feel guilty against the reality of day in, day out summer.

Recognize the all-or-nothing thinking? When it comes to our loved ones, whether we’re parents or not, most women shy away from embracing the completely normal range of feelings that permeate relationships . Most of us feel badly unless feelings of love and good will materialize 110% of the time. We feel like bad moms, bad partners, or bad daughters or friends. We wish for that magic wand: POOF with fairy dust! We would never feel negative toward a loved one, child or adult, again.

Feelings of frustration with others in our lives are the badge of being human. Many women can accept such feelings aimed at the family of origin. As a small child in the grip of sibling rivalry, you accepted that you hated your sister. As a teen, it was status quo to hate your mom, and maybe your dad too. Underneath, you knew in your heart that you truly loved these family members. You just were momentarily (okay, maybe it was months that these feelings festered in your teenage heart) unhappy with the behavior, even though you still loved the person. Chances are, as an adult, you’ve come to terms with this reality with your significant other, as well. Backing off from black and white thinking, we can understand that this person-behavior distinction applies.

Nonstop sticky, sweaty, demanding kids clinging to your legs or lap ARE annoying, but embracing that reality doesn’t make you a bad mom. The mantra to memorize is “love the kids, hate the job.” Fleeting hate does not mean you are a witch. It means you are simply flesh and blood and emotion, rather than an autopilot Stepford creation. Negative emotions are a package deal with the joy. It’s all about the ratio. Tune into the fun, loving moments and you will see that the wand is not required.

If you need a few ideas to survive the end of the season, check out the August 3 podcast of The Sanity Hour. Perfectly good moms send those kids into the back yard to amuse themselves under the sprinkler while they sit in the shade with some deep breaths, a cool drink and a good book.