Thank You, Jennifer and Jason

It’s August 23, a Friday, and where we live, the kids still have 10 days of summer vacation before they go back to school. I have to say that the kids have had a grand summer. Lots of time off, sleeping late, visits with friends for swimming and parties, soccer for the boy, sleepovers for the girl, golf outings for both, their first trip to Yosemite (before the fires). And a Mom (and Dad!) making it all happen. Paying the bills, driving the car, cheering them on. Good for them.

But a hard season for me.

Tired of being in the house. Tired of being in the car. Tired of being surrounded by bodies. When you’re a mom, any time your children are anywhere within earshot, a measurable portion of your brain is ALWAYS in monitor mode. It’s rather like being on call 24 hours a day, all week, every week.

As a basic introvert (the cool thing to be now if you measure all the attention given us recently), summer for me is one long, slow leak of energy as from a battery. Constant. Relentless. The drips of energy slowly draining the tank.

This is the reason moms count down the days till school starts, the reason moms like this one do a happy dance when the school bus pulls away from the curb on that first day of school.

It’s not that we don’t love our kids or enjoy being with them. Never that. (OK, so maybe when they’re whining or rolling their eyes at us we don’t necessarily LIKE them.) But when they overstep their boundaries, pervert their privileges, and need to be grounded, it’s as much a punishment for the parent as it is for the child. Maybe more so. When your parents said, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” they were right.

It’s tough to balance the daughter pulling away to spend more time with friends and the ongoing thrill of the first boyfriend and the son seduced too often by the ubiquitous screens – TV, computer, and any other flat surface with moving images, especially animated ones. (Some day, Bill Gates and the ghost of Steve Jobs will have to answer for creating a nation of zombies.)

So it’s no wonder some parents prefer going to work somewhere else. If co-workers roll their eyes or whine, you at least know you aren’t responsible for their bad behavior. You can chalk it up to their own bad parenting. (I’m convinced that we’d never have gone to war in Iraq if Saddam Hussein weren’t the victim of bad parenting.)

But it’s not just the kids that siphon off strength. It’s the additive effects of worrying about elderly parents far away, changes in job responsibilities, the dripping showerhead needing repair, and the dog commanding as much attention as possible to make up for all that was denied him last school year.

So on this Friday afternoon, when I’m so mentally tired I can’t string two sentences together coherently, the best I can do is slip into that space of escape known as the local movie theater. “We’re the Millers” won out over “The Butler” because I just didn’t want to think about class, race, and power structures, the things that go on in secret in the halls of power, even if the story involves the ubiquitous Oprah. Enough of mental gymnastics.  I’ll leave those to my academic colleagues for now.

I wasn’t expecting much from “We’re the Millers.” Apparently, few others were either. There were only three of us in the theater this afternoon. The move presents a conventional story – a group of down-on-their-luck people who learn to become a loving family. Lots of plot twists, R-rated language (and gestures), and the seductive stripper scene where Jennifer Aniston proves she still has it. Not Oscar-worthy (despite the coy look Jennifer and Jason Sudeikis give the camera after a remark about the dual roles they play in the movie), but very clever, worth the price of a matinee. I laughed at the scenes and admired the finesse of the actors. As their story unraveled on the screen, so too did my dark mood, and that too was worth the price of admission.

So thank you, Jennifer and Jason. Thank you for reminding me that family life is always challenging, but not without humor, and that “parent” is a role, not a person.

I Never Meant to Be a Pilot

Note: A version of this column first appeared in The Olympian, April 25, 2007.

Once upon a time, before I had children, I was home awaiting a visit from a friend, who brought along her 8-month-old son. I hadn’t seen this friend in months and was glad for the chance to visit. But my excitement quickly turned into annoyance, for as we were talking, my friend kept interrupting our conversation to turn to her child, who was happily playing on his own, to call out “Hey, Bud!” or “Whatcha doin’, baby?” The baby would then turn toward his mom looking slightly alarmed.

Now that I have children, I recognize that interruption is a constant of parenthood (though it’s usually the child interrupting the parent). Still, I remember my friend’s explanation for why she was interrupting our conversation and her child’s play. She wanted to stimulate his brain to form as many synapses as possible, giving him a jump on life.

Science has proven that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for brain development. But science has not yet recognized the creature arising from this research: the Helicopter Parent – one who hovers over a child directing every activity, well beyond those first 3 years. As a parent, I recognize the temptation to give a child every advantage. I’ve also started to notice the comic side of that tendency.

How do you know if you’re a Helicopter Parent? To borrow a page from Jeff Foxworthy (since he’s busy with 5th graders), you might be a helicopter if you…

  • Never put your infant down, even during nap time (yours or hers)
  • Marvel at the contents of your child’s diaper while changing it
  • Insist on walking your second-grader to the school crosswalk, which is just across your backyard
  • Videotape all your child’s activities, including visits to other children’s birthday parties
  • Never allow your 10-year-old to play at a friend’s house without being there to supervise
  • Constantly use that computer connection that lets you monitor your child’s activities at junior high
  • Fill out your child’s college applications
  • Distribute your child’s resume at job fairs
  • Consider it a privilege to do your adult child’s laundry

I’m not making these up. They are real-life examples from people I’ve met or heard about. Perhaps you recognize a dad or mom in this list. Perhaps you see me there. (Though my students stared at me wide-eyed when I described having my first-grader pack his own lunch for school.)

Most parents have the best intentions in guiding their children, and that’s what parenthood should be — guiding, not controlling. But some children of helicopters may end up thinking they’re the center of the world because that’s the position they’ve grown accustomed to. Others, given some free time, panic because freedom scares them. Some have told me they’re embarrassed by their parents’ actions. Others admit to rebelling against them. Perhaps the greatest danger is that these children might morph into helicopters themselves.

In those moments when I find myself preparing for take-off, I chant aloud the words of George Carlin: “Parents, leave your kids alone!”  And if that doesn’t work, there’s always a chapter of Confessions of a Slacker Mom, by Muffy Mead-Ferro. It works for dads too.