My Convertible Life

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sometimes it's the little things

I've got a lot going on these days (don't we all?!) and am having a hard time stopping the spinning in my brain. Most of it is good things, there's just a lot of it and some of it is pushing me way beyond my comfort zone. I'm neglecting things left and right (and not just this blog), snapping at my kids (more than they deserve), and spending more than the usual amount of time trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing or what it was I came into this particular room to get.

But for about five minutes tonight, I had the sense to step back and see the actual moment I was in. And it was glorious.

It looked like this:

My children are making dinner. They know I'm overwhelmed, so they volunteered. They've already followed my recipe for crab cakes (gluten-free, of course) and actually cleaned up as they went. Pippi is forming patties and dropping them into the hot pan while Junius cuts up broccoli crowns and places them in the steamer. At the same time, I'm prepping ingredients to make oatmeal muffins so that we have breakfast and snacks for later in the week. Once the crab cakes are cooking, Pippi comes over to stir the oats into the bowl of wet ingredients. Out of nowhere, Junius starts singing "Eye of the Tiger." None of us knows all the words, so it's a funny blend of humming and words, but it's some kind of perfect.

In this moment -- maybe just this one, but at least this one -- I realize I am crushing it as a parent.

My husband wisely told me to go write it down. So I did.

(Note: My children are now watching "Danger Mouse" on the Kindle at the kitchen counter and we haven't started eating dinner yet. Even parents who are crushing it need Netflix sometimes.)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Raising a strong girl

One of the kindest, smartest, loveliest women I know assures me that she was a total bitch to her mother growing up. She emphasizes this fact with words like "awful," "unrelenting," "horrible" and "embarrassing." She uses a capital B.

Today this same woman loves her mother deeply and profoundly, and I am confident her mother knows that. I can't even picture her being horrible to anyone, except maybe in a Julia-Sugarbaker-put-you-in-your-place-bless-your-heart kind way that's actually just badass and they probably deserved it.

This fact gives me no small amount of consolation in the present moment and tremendous hope for the future. Because if being unrelenting in tormenting your mother as a young person is an indication of greatness as an adult, then Pippi is going to be one spectacular grown-up.

It's no secret that I didn't want to have a girl -- at least not if you've read this blog or attended the first Raleigh-Durham Listen to Your Mother show. Actually, just to be clear, that's still a secret from my daughter, so no one tell her.

As I admitted back then when Pippi was only 5 years old, I was right to be afraid. Like so many girls -- even rule-following pleasers like myself -- she saves her worst behavior for her mama. (Thank goodness her father seems to bring out the best in her.) Four years later, she's even more amazing and more challenging than she was back then. There are times I'm able to unravel her thinking and understand for a moment. But there are so many more times when I send myself to my room to keep from losing my ever-loving mind with her.

That's when having a village of other mamas also raising strong girls is so critical to survival -- for both of us. Do not underestimate the value of being able to text a friend in a moment of desperation and getting back a message that I'm not alone and that I'm "raising her to be strong and that ain't easy."

After reminding me of my daughter's many good qualities (and there truly are many), my father recently told me that Pippi had picked the right mom. I shook my head in doubt, feeling completely unprepared for the task. "You let her be herself," he said. "And you won't try to break her."

Honestly, I don't think she would let me. But I treasure the idea that he sees us both that way -- as a strong, beautiful girl and a mother who loves her just as she is.

So tonight, instead of pouring myself a glass of wine to recover, I'm turning to this neglected blog instead. On the off chance that someone else out there just survived dinner and bedtime with a stubborn, defiant young girl (or boy, for that matter) and is feeling beaten down, know that you are not alone.

It takes a damn good village to raise a strong girl, and I am ever grateful to have both.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Now she is 9

Earlier this year, my baby girl turned 9.

She is a force of nature. A force to be reckoned with. An unstoppable force pressing and pushing against an unmovable object. The eighth wonder of the world. She is headstrong, sensitive, unyielding and tender all in the span of an hour. Within the same day, I am the best mommy in the world and also [eye roll, hip cocked, head to the side, foot stomp] the single person most ruining her life. She is 9 going on 19.

There are days I am in awe of her and just as many days that I do. not. know. what to do with her.

At some point on the way to turning 9, she had a big growth spurt that stretched her legs to new lengths. This spring, when the weather started to turn warm, she pulled out her sporty shorts from last year -- the running shorts style, elastic waist with the unders built in. When they were new, they fit her fine, but now a year later, they barely cover her bum.

"Are those too small?" I ask when she tries them on. "Do you need new shorts?"

"No," she says, then pauses and looks down at herself. "Well, maybe."

So we head to Target, source of all things, to look for new running shorts. I point to shorts after shorts in the girls section, only to watch her shake her head at each adorable pair. She tells me she doesn't want the short kind, but instead is looking for the longer, basketball style shorts. You know, she tells me, like what Junius wears.

By now, I suppose I should expect the opposite of whatever I expected when it comes to Pippi. There's so much about her that I don't understand and can't predict. Often it seems she chooses the contrary answer just for sport.

"Why do you want to dress like your brother?" I ask, still somehow surprised.

She has her answer ready: "Because his shorts have pockets."

* * *

Growing up, I was an "outfit" kind of girl. I loved dressing up, for play and for real. There was no throwing on whatever was clean -- each night, I would plan my outfit for the next day. As soon as I turned 16, I got a job at the Limited Express (hello, late 80s) to support my shopping habit. I rarely wore jeans to school, owned very few t-shirts with writing on them. I was a lot of things, but sporty wasn't one of them.

When Pippi was born, once I recovered from the shock of having a girl, I reveled in all the adorable tiny outfits. Baby girls get so many fun options that just don't exist for baby boys. She was like the best dress-up doll I ever had. Once she was old enough to dress herself, she quickly exerted her own opinions over her wardrobe -- but the results were so spectacular that I couldn't say no. In fact, I bought even more colorful and patterned and sparkly pieces to give her better options to mix into her preschool fashionista fabulousness.

After she completed kindergarten, however, she drifted away from the adorable outfits and the layers of ruffles and accessories toward a daily uniform of sporty shorts and oversized t-shirts paired with Nike socks and running shoes. At first I pushed back, continued buying matching sets of patterned shirts and skirts or sweet, twirly dresses. Eventually I realized I was wasting my money and waging a losing battle.

One day, as I looked at her in all her sporty glory, it dawned on me that she was comfortable -- literally and emotionally -- just the way she was. Why was I trying to force her into the self-conscious fashion rules that still plague me? Did I really want to be the one to teach her to worry about how she looks?

I made a conscious decision to let go and let her be in charge of her wardrobe. We bought leggings and running shorts, no skirts or outfits. If it wasn't church or a special event, I stayed out of her closet. Which brings us back to buying sporty shorts at Target...

* * *

Pockets. She had me at pockets.

I might not understand wanting to wear basketball shorts and oversized t-shirts, but hell yeah I understand the desire for pockets. My favorite dresses, skirts, even pajama pants and one chambray tunic all have pockets. Compliment any woman on her dress and her first response, if it has pockets, will be to smile broadly and announce to you, "Thanks! It has pockets!" Through the magic of Twitter I recently learned of one woman who had pockets in her wedding dress, which almost made me want to get married again because that sounded so brilliant.

So off we went in search of basketball-style shorts with pockets, only to discover that those sons of bitches don't put pockets in girls' basketball shorts.

And that is how I found myself shopping with my daughter in the boys' section at Target, where she selected two pairs of knee-length shorts with pockets that look so exactly like her brother's shorts that I had to write her initials on the tags so that I know they're hers when they come through the wash.

* * *

When Hillary Clinton metaphorically broke the glass ceiling at last year's Democratic Convention and when Elizabeth Warren persisted in spite of those working to silence her and when women (and men) all over the world marched together this January, they were fighting for women on a very grand and global scale. I won't pretend that one trip to Target deserves the same significance.

But I'm more than a little proud of my fierce daughter who is not deterred by the fact that some clothing designer thinks girls don't need pockets or even by the fact that her mom wishes she would wear some of those pretty skirts shoved in the back of her dresser drawer. With any luck, she and I will continue to connect over clothes with pockets and maybe discover some other things along the way that will bind us closer together. I'm trying to remind myself to listen more and love better, even as she pushes me in ways I don't understand.

So, you be you, Pippilotta. Be patient with me. And I'll do my best to keep up.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Cold, Rainy Day

Last week I realized that I'm in the glory days right now.

My parents are in their 70s, but still independent and healthy enough that they don't need any extra care from me. My children are old enough to do most things for themselves, but still young enough that I'm not worried they're out drinking and driving. It suddenly occurred to me that I only have a handful of years like this and I'd better appreciate them.

Then yesterday my uncle died.

He was also my godfather and the first in that generation of my immediate family to pass away. That's hitting closer to home in ways I wasn't prepared for.

And then this morning I found myself watching CNN from the elliptical at the gym, as all the former presidents made their way to the inauguration. I was mostly doing fine, thanks to the fact that I was listening to a podcast instead of the television audio. But when Bill and Hillary Clinton walked down the stairs and out to the waiting motorcade, my feet just stopped moving. Couldn't tell if I was going to start weeping or vomiting, so I left.

I'm not going to waste word count on my thoughts about the President-Elect. But what I will tell you is that Hillary Clinton is my hero. Any person who can do what she is doing today -- with such grace and composure -- is the kind of strong I want to be. And that is all I have to say about that.

My uncle and I didn't agree on politics. At all. At some point I'm pretty sure he stopped emailing me because I responded to nearly every one of his forwards with a barrage of links to or legitimate news sources using actual research to refute the click-bait craziness he was perpetuating. He liked to needle me for me fun, but that wasn't an area I was willing to play along.

But I did love my uncle and he absolutely loved me. And while I knew I'd never change his mind with a candidate campaign, I always knew that his heart was in the right place. I'm sad that I didn't do more to be sure my children knew him well, and I will spend the coming days telling them stories about him.

Today is cold, rainy and hard. But if Hillary Clinton can put on lipstick and white pantsuit, take a deep breath and go out into the world, then I suppose I can, too. I just might be wearing yoga pants instead.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Back-to-school is awesome

In about 10 days, my kids will go back to school -- and just in case you run into them in the next week or so, please do me a favor.

Do not ask them if they are sad about it.

Seriously, until you pose that leading question, it never even occurs to them that they should be sad. In fact, they're actually quite excited about the start of a new school year -- just look at their happy faces on the first day last year.

Setting aside the hard reality that, for some kids, school is the one place where they feel safe, fed and cared for, let's remember the promise that comes with a fresh set of school supplies and a brand new year ahead.

Think about it -- they get to spend time with their friends learning interesting things from adults who care about them, they get to play sports and run around at recess, they get to read and draw and experiment and explore, they get to ask questions and investigate answers. What's not to love?

Now, will they be sad when the pool closes in a couple weeks? Yes. Will they wish they could have a few more lazy mornings watching last night's recorded Olympic events? Of course. Would they like an extra week's vacation at the beach? Obviously.

But they are not sad about going back to school.

When you ask them the question that way, it implies that school is boring or hard or generally not a nice place to be. When you ask that question, you put the idea in their head that perhaps they shouldn't be excited after all.

So instead, here's what you can ask them:
  • What good books did you read this summer?
  • What are you most excited about for the new school year?
  • What did you miss about school over the summer?
  • What advice do you have for someone starting school for the first time?
  • What was your favorite adventure or experience while you were out of school?
I promise those questions will do a lot more to encourage them -- and the answers to those questions will be much more entertaining for you.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

And now he's eleven

My breath catches in my chest each time I look at this photo, taken earlier this year.
That's my son, who I've seen nearly every one of the past 4,015 days, but there's something about this picture that just stops me in my tracks. I realize the tuxedo -- rented for his junior cotillion ball -- is cheating a little, but it's his face more than his ensemble that really does me in.

Seems like every year I've written a post on or (ahem) around his birthday simultaneously celebrating and bemoaning the way he just keeps on growing up. In many ways, this year is no different. He's older than he was, younger than he will be -- and growing faster every day.

Over the past year, he started going to the pool on his own, spent his first week at sleep-away camp, competed on the swim team, played more hockey, joined the Battle of the Books, learned the fox trot, took his first out-of-state school field trip, got his own email address, taught himself to make chocolate cupcakes from scratch, graduated from elementary school, went kayak-beach camping with his dad.

And in August he will start middle school, an event which seems both thrilling and terrifying -- at least to me.

There are so many things, both big and small, that I cannot protect him from. The world around us seems like it's going to hell in a hand basket -- so much fear, anger and ugliness that I cannot explain and feel powerless to stop.

Maybe that's part of what I love about this picture. In his sweet, handsome face, I see both the baby he was and the man he will be -- and in that, I see hope.

In this particular moment, I'm not even exactly sure what that means. He's still just a kid who forgets to put his breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, purposefully torments his sister for sport and has started having tween-age mood swings that threaten to undo me. But when he's not occasionally sulking in a corner for no apparent reason, he's a really nice guy with a creative mind, a big heart and a fierce sense of justice. That all seems like a good start.

Plus he looks great in a tux.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The truth about neighborhood schools

It's no surprise that respondents to a recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools survey say they want their kids to attend school close to home. Of the more than 27,000 people who completed the survey, 86 percent said that a school's proximity to home is very or extremely important.

As a parent, I get that.

From a purely practical sense, being able to get to my kids' school in about 10 minutes certainly simplifies my life -- particularly on the days that I'm dropping them off in the morning, then back for a lunchtime reading group, then back again in the afternoon to pick them up. And knowing that my children don't have to spend an extra hour on the bus to get home each day certainly makes them happier.

What's important to note, though, is that the question specifically asked about the value of "location/proximity to home." It did not ask about "neighborhood schools." This may sound like semantics, but it's an important distinction.

While the question is fine, how the answer gets translated causes apples-to-oranges problems. My house is exactly one mile from two different elementary schools, although technically neither one is in my neighborhood. But the idea of having a school that belongs to the neighborhood where you live -- an idea fed by continued use of the phrase "neighborhood school" by media, researchers, parents and politicians alike -- is one that parents often cling to.

The real truth is that "neighborhood schools" -- that Norman Rockwell vision of every child in a 12-block radius skipping down the sidewalk to attend school together -- don't really exist for most families anymore. Just within the few blocks closest to my house, the elementary-aged kids attend two charter schools, three private schools, three magnet schools and two base schools. Particularly as districts like Wake County offer more theme-based and magnet programs and with the cap lifted on the number of charter schools that can open across the state, parents have more choices than ever -- and they're taking advantage of those choices to find the right fit for their families.

As education innovators try to move away from outdated classroom approaches that aren't preparing students for today's world, why should we cling to this Rockwell imagery that supports old thinking?

Here are some other problems with the notion of "neighborhood schools"...

  • Neighborhoods tend to be economically isolated -- that's not really news, but it does impact school demographics. In recent years, the Charlotte area was named on the top 10 list of large metros where the wealthy are most geographically segregated and Raleigh isn't dramatically better. That means that pulling a school's population from within a specific neighborhood is likely to give you only a specific economic group. That tends to create a system of low-poverty schools and high-poverty schools.
  • If your high-poverty neighborhood creates a high-poverty school (those that serve more than 50 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch), you're more likely to have higher teacher turnover rates, lower volunteer rates and lower academic scores (see here and here). In North Carolina's new letter grade system, schools' grades essentially became a proxy for poverty levels. Note that it's not a question about how successful low-income students can be -- it's an issue of how well a low-income school can function.
  • Researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving. Creating diverse schools -- racially and socioeconomically integrated -- results in benefits for students as well as the communities they live in.
  • In the same CMS survey, more than 70 percent of respondents said they valued exposure to children from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Wanting proximity to home doesn't mean that respondents don't care about diversity. 

Now what?

Unfortunately, I don't have an easy answer, any more than I did six years ago when my son was in kindergarten or 20 years ago (gulp) when I was teaching in a predominantly black high school. But I do have a suggestion:

Stop complicating the matter by continuing to use the phrase "neighborhood schools" -- the term is loaded with more baggage than any kid can cram into a backpack and suggests an us vs. them divide that won't help any community.  (I'm looking at you, reporters, researchers, politicians and even parents.)

Instead, let's try the following:
  • Talk about student assignment plans that minimize travel time from home as much as is reasonable without isolating students into neighborhoods.
  • Allow educators to focus on how we can get the best academic and social learning experience for all students. 
  • Engage parents, businesses and communities in the conversation about how to ensure successful graduates -- check out this Wake County event on April 29.
  • Start building up our whole community rather than walling off into subdivisions.