parenting

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My almost 17 year old stepson got his driver’s license this spring and over the course of the summer, I’ve barely seen him. He keeps busy during the day in a summer sailing program and spends some of his free time on his part time lawn mowing job. The rest of his free time is filled with social engagements. From barbecues to crab feasts, golf outings, and windsurfing, there always seems to be a festivity of some sort in which he is invited to participate. Inevitably, the barbecue leads to a sleepover and, before we know it, days go by without us seeing him.

My stepdaughter is also busy – in her case, with a packed babysitting schedule. She has done a great job of lining up two or three families that, together, have employed her on a nearly full time basis this summer. She loves her job and is very good at it, but the best part (especially for a 14 year old girl who likes to shop) is that it pays well.

In principle, I have no problem with my kids’ summer schedule, but the reality is that when you combine all the time spent on camps, summer jobs, and fun with friends with the time they spend over at their mother’s house, there has been little to no time for us to spend together as a family. Case in point – in late July, I purchased tickets for all six of us to go to a local waterpark and, believe it or not, it’s looking very likely that there will not be a single day before summer ends and the park closes that we can all go spend the day there together.

The rational side of me knows that I need to just let it go. My stepdaughter leaves for boarding school this fall and in about two years, my stepson will be starting college and we’ll see even less of him. In the interim, it’s natural for teenaged girls and boys to break away and establish their independence.
The mom side of me thinks that’s a bunch of baloney and feels like, at some point, family time has to take precedence over everything else.

I have no idea which – my rational side or my mom side – is right, but the reality is that it really doesn’t matter. You can force teenagers to give up friend time in favor of family time, but when you do, family time is no fun. They have a pretty incredible talent for digging their heels in and making things fairly unpleasant when you make them do something they don’t want to.

What I’ve begun to realize is that this is the beginning of the end. The end of their childhood, that is. As they make the transition to adulthood, the challenge for us – their parents (and stepparents) – is to find a “new normal” in which we can all spend time together. My guess is that it won’t be nearly as much time as it used to be, but that is okay as long as we make the time we DO have count.

Recognizing this is one thing, but letting go is another. My kids are more than ready for their independence. Me? Not so much (and I’m just the stepmom – I can’t imagine how hard it is for their mom!). But this is really what parenting is all about, isn’t it? You teach your little birds to fly and, when they actually leave the nest, you are inevitably calling for them to come back.

Sigh…

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Today, I had a revelation about my own experience with motherhood. My husband is out of town on business for four days and I have all four of my kids with me and a business to run. In addition to client meetings, deliverables to complete, and a new employee to train (she started today!), I had school pick-ups and drop-offs, one child who had a tutoring session a half hour away, and a grocery run thrown in there for good measure.

As I reviewed the day in my head, I realized that I do a pretty good job of running a tight family ship despite our crazy schedule. My kids even commented on how smoothly things went today – they got to school a bit early, a home-cooked dinner was on the table at a reasonable hour, the laundry (three loads!) all got done, homework is finished, and the house is clean. After I finished giving myself a mental pat on the back, I started thinking about why I was able to pull it together so easily when on many nights, the situation is much more chaotic.

The answer? Motherhood is like project management and I work better under pressure.

I come from a management consulting background and in any consulting field, project management is a critical skill to master. To carry a project successfully from start to finish, you’ve got multiple balls to juggle:

  • A clear set of expectations for what will be accomplished;
  • A good plan with all the major tasks identified, responsibility for their completion assigned, and clear deadlines and accountability;
  • The ability to manage your client (ie. Keeping them happy while making sure they are giving you what you need, when you need it);
  • Consistent communication with your client and team members;
  • Strong leadership skills and the ability to work well with a team;
  • A solid work ethic; and
  • The ability to work well under pressure and manage people and tasks during a crisis.

Motherhood is no different. It’s all about balancing the mundane (checking things off the “to do” list) with the sublime (giving each child some individual attention and love) while not losing sight of the master plan. To do this successfully, you’ve got to apply the same concepts employed by the Critical Path Method, namely:

  • Compile a list of all activities required to complete the project (day);
  • Determine the time that each activity will take to complete; and
  • Understand the interdependency of the various activities.

In my case, this plays out something like the following. The tasks included me getting a shower and looking presentable for work, everyone getting breakfast and taking their various vitamins/medicines, packing lunches for school, dropping kids off at school, conducting an orientation for a new employee, taking said new employee to a weekly marketing meeting with a client, completing a deliverable, checking and answering emails, preparing dinner for the kids, picking the kids up from school, getting my stepson to and from math tutoring, buying groceries, picking my other son up from daycare, feeding all children dinner, washing and folding several loads of laundry, taking the garbage out, cleaning the house, and touching base with my husband (on the business trip) and my parents. Whew!

In order to get all of the above done, several important things needed to happen. These included getting the coffee pot ready to brew the night before, having my breakfast made the night before, waking up 45 minutes before my kids to shower and get dressed, laying out everyone’s vitamins and medicines and lunchboxes so nothing would be forgotten in the morning rush, preparing dinner the day before, and combining the grocery run with the tutoring pick-up/drop-offs.

In addition to these tasks, I needed the cooperation of the kids. This means having plenty of patience while I ask my stepson for the 5th time to clean up his dinner dishes, not getting too upset when I return home to find popcorn kernels all over the kitchen floor (the result of an ambitious afternoon snack project), and having to delay by one day seeing my stepdaughter clean her room. But while I take some credit for keeping the kids on track by picking my battles, I also recognize that they were fantastic today all on their own. They seem to sense when I need them to pull it together and help out – like when my stepdaughter offered to clean up the dinner dishes and my stepson helped me to take the garbage out. Have I mentioned how great my kids are??

The point is, there was a lot to get done and plenty of interdependency. In order to get started with work on time, I had to take care of a lot of the morning activities (coffee making, breakfast prep, etc.) the night before. To get the kids fed on time at dinner, the meal needed to be made ahead of time so we could simply “heat and eat” after tutoring. To find any time to buy groceries, I needed to take advantage of the half hour window while my stepson was at tutoring.

Our busy schedule really plays to my strengths. I work well under pressure and love it when I figure out ways to meet seemingly impossible deadlines. Don’t get me wrong – I am in no way saying I want every day to be like today, but I have learned to appreciate the times I’m able to rise to the challenges of motherhood. After all, let’s face it – there are so many times when we don’t live up to our own expectations as mothers and the guilt can be crushing!

I think what I love so much about today is it underscored why, for me, being a working mother is making me a better mother. I’m a big believer that everyone has to choose the best path for themselves and that there is no one “right” way to be a mother, but I still fall victim to the occasional bout of self-doubt on days that my stay-at-home mom friends are taking their children on field trips to museums or spending the day at the pumpkin patch. Getting back into the professional world has awoken my inner project manager and on days like today, she is ready to take charge! Knowing that my time at work is in some ways making me a better mother makes me feel better about the things I’m sacrificing and – I hope – teaching my kids about the importance of good planning, hard work, and patience. Yay me!

Now it’s time to do it all again tomorrow…. Sigh.

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Sometime this morning, my husband and I will sit down at our kitchen table with two copies of our Microsoft Outlook calendars and hold a strategic planning session. Although we work together in our business, we will not be talking about client meetings, project reviews, or our business plan – we’ll be planning out who will do what (and when and where we’ll do it) over the weekend.

Over the course of the last year, we’ve developed a very business-like approach to our personal lives. I print out the calendars for Saturday and Sunday, we each make a list of all the things we want to get done over the weekend, and we make sure that any obligations (kids’ sports practices, lessons, birthday parties, etc.) are recorded. Then, we begin the process of filling in all the empty time. My husband swims as part of a masters team every Saturday morning, so that usually gets added first. I run with a friend on Sunday mornings, so that is next. There are usually a variety of projects around the house, like repairing a broken closet door or weeding in the garden, that inevitably need to be included. Last come our personal lists – the things we each want to do for ourselves, but are not necessities. For me, it might be a trip to the outlet mall to look for new jeans, whereas my husband usually wants to spend time with our neighbor selecting the seeds they are going to order for their gardens this summer. Everything that we add to the calendar gets color-coded so that it is very clear who is responsible for each activity.

What we are left with at the end of this process is a pretty full line-up of events, activities, tasks, and obligations – and very little white space. It is typically at this point that we try and figure out a way for the two of us to spend time together. I’ll admit – there are many weekends when we don’t actually do that. Sunday night will roll around and we’ll climb into bed and my first reaction is to turn to my husband and say something along the lines of “Hello stranger! Nice to see you. What have you been doing all weekend?” I know that he often feels the same way.

With four children (three of whom are with us only part of the time), our own business, and a tight budget, we have found that at this point in our lives, there is very little free time for us to spend together and not a lot of money to spend on babysitters, date nights, or weekend getaways. We are both big believers that it’s important to invest in your marriage, but we are not always so great at following through on that when the days get busy. This being said, the important thing is that we’re working on it. We talk often about the need to spend more time together and we’re always looking for ways to do it that are both practical and affordable. And one of these days, I’m pretty sure we’ll figure it out!

So my question to you is – how do YOU make time for each other in your marriage? I’m sure we’re not the only couple facing this challenge and I’d love to know how other people manage to juggle family, work and time with their significant other.

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Last weekend, I had a parenting revelation.

I’ve written quite a few times on this blog about the difficult balancing act that working mothers are faced with every day. We are often forced to choose between working and parenting, and while this choice (on paper, at least) seems like it should be easy, it’s not. Many of us work out of necessity. We have to provide for our kids and working gives us the resources to afford the necessities (like a roof over their heads and groceries) as well as many of the luxuries (including private school, camps, tutors, and vacations). In short, our quality of life, as well as that of our children, would suffer if we didn’t work. Given these facts, it’s easy to convince yourself that work should take priority.

Having said this, I’ve also written about my belief that we should work to live and NOT live to work – and I really do believe this. Work is simply NOT worth it if it prevents us from enjoying our lives. When that is the case, you should change your work or at least reevaluate why you are doing it.

Why am I rehashing all of this?

Well, one would think that given the amount of blog real estate I’ve dedicated to this topic, I’d be leading the charge of mothers who know that when the workday is over, you should put down the laptop, turn off the Blackberry, close the iPad, and stop taking calls. After all, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to simply be PRESENT with your children – to truly live in the moment and learn to revel in the smallest, most precious details like the look on your child’s face when they discover something new, their laugh when they hear a funny joke, the face they make when they taste a new food, or the incredible imagination they bring to playtime.

I confess – I stink at this!

I absolutely love and adore my children, but shutting off my work self is like trying to kick an addiction. I can be sitting with my kids reading books or building leggos, and I find myself checking my Blackberry for emails. I might be baking cookies with the older kids and taking cell phone calls. Other times, when the rest of my family is heading out for snowball fights or a game of soccer in the backyard, I’m inexplicably drawn to Facebook or Twitter on my iPad.

The worst part? The whole time I’m doing this, I’m thinking “Stop! Show your kids that they are your only focus. Make your time with them the priority.”

All of which brings me back to my parenting revelation.

Last weekend, my husband was out of town with friends, my stepkids were with their mother, and I found myself alone with my four year old son. I should preface this with the explanation that he is ALL boy – high energy, doesn’t sit still, has no interest in playing quietly alone while I do things like work, fold laundry, read a book, etc. With two full days of one-on-one time looming in front of us, my thoughts turned to how I was going to keep him entertained – and thus, “Mommy-Wyatt Day” was born.

The first every “Mommy-Wyatt Day” occurred last Saturday when I made the commitment to my son and myself that I would do no work – and by no work, I mean nothing related to my job, but also no house work, no grocery shopping, etc. The day was about one thing and one thing only – having fun with my son.

Not suprisingly, Mommy-Wyatt Day was a big hit. It started with a lazy morning at home. We slept in and stayed in our pyjamas until 11 am. After a leisurely breakfast, we fulfilled our one obligation for the day by attending Wyatt’s ice skating lesson at noon. With that out of the way, we headed out to McDonald’s (or “Old McDonald’s” as he calls it) where my son had a Cheeseburger Happy Meal (the giveaway, which prompted our visit, was a Tonka Truck – whoever says the toys don’t sway us is just plain full of it!). We then went to the Mall for our first-ever visit to the Build-A-Bear Workshop, where Wyatt built an Owl and dressed him as a firefighter (did I mention he’s all boy?). This was followed by a ride on the mall train (literally, a train that rides through the middle of our local mall), an ice cream in the food court, and a showing of the movie Tangled. All in all, it was a pretty action packed day, and I’m proud to say that throughout it, I checked no emails, took no calls, and did no “work” (I did, however, post photos of him on the train to my Facebook page for the grandparents to see – is that cheating?).

The best part of Mommy-Wyatt Day, other than the joy on my son’s face, was gaining a real appreciation for how much fun it can be for ME to unplug and spend time with my kids and how little impact it had on my life to do so. The house didn’t burn down, the business didn’t fall apart, and viral riots didn’t erupt on Facebook in my absence.

In short, life went on. And while it did, I gave my son some of the most fantastic memories of his 4 year old life and had a pretty good time myself while doing it.

My newfound commitment to unplugged parenting will soon be put to the real test. In less than two weeks, Wyatt and I leave for a week’s vacation on the beach in Florida with my parents. It’s one thing to stop working for one Saturday, but another entirely to step away for a week.

My husband thinks I should start a betting pool regarding how long I’ll last. What do YOU think the over-under is?

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Every mom I know worries about whether she is doing a good enough job raising her children. It seems that our best is never good enough – there are always other moms whose kids are smarter, or more athletic, or musically gifted, and who manage to somehow feed their children all organic, home-cooked, well-rounded meals, while at the same time limiting television and coming up with one fabulous arts and crafts project after another.

When I gave birth to my son, I decided early on that I wouldn’t strive for perfection and that I would try to remember that the best parents are the ones who shower their children with love while also providing them with structure and boundaries. I work hard at this – not just with my three year old son, but with my three teenaged stepchildren – and lately I’ve begun to feel like I’m actually succeeding. All four kids seem happy, are doing well in school, are healthy, and have great relationships with both myself and their father.

The problem is with my first baby … my dog, Destin. Destin is a five and a half year old black lab mix who came to us at 8 weeks old from a Lab Rescue program. I had her before I gave birth to my son, so in many ways, she was the guinea pig on whom I practiced my mothering skills. When she was little, she went everywhere with me. I was – and still am – working from home, and during the day, she would curl up on a cushion next to my desk to play with toys and sleep. When I ran errands – to the bank, the post office, etc. – she would come with me. Fast forward five years and for the most part, things haven’t changed much. I still work from home, and Destin still spends all her days and nights with me.

So what’s the problem? Well, despite the fact that Destin and I spend all of our time together, she gets very little attention or play time. During the day, I’m working and she is sleeping nearby. Every now and then she will venture out into our fenced in backyard to chase a squirrel or relieve herself. In the evenings, she lays around the living room in the hopes that one of our four children will play fetch with her, and at night, she faithfully sleeps either next to my bed or on my 11 year old stepson’s trundle. She is a fantastic companion for us all, but her only real break is when my stepson takes her for a walk around the block (his daily chore) or I take her on a run (which I do much less frequently now that I’m deep into a marathon training program which has me running too far for the dog).

Sadly, Destin’s current routine probably isn’t going to change much in the near future. The kids have just started school again, which means driving to sports practice, games, friends houses, and school performances, and somehow squeezing in my job, time to cook dinner, the laundry and – oh yes – a couple of minutes a day for quality time with my husband. Every now and then, I’ll fit in a walk with her or simply lay next to her on the floor and rub her belly, but most of the time she lays around looking neglected or bored – I’m not sure which.

I’m not sure if it’s the genetic destiny of labs to look melancholy or if our dog is really depressed, but every time I look at her she looks back at me with the face of someone who is feeling forgotten. My husband is always telling me that I’m projecting my own guilt onto the dog, but I’m not convinced.

Somehow, I’ve managed to keep a great perspective about motherhood while falling victim to the need to be the perfect mother to my dog! Its crazy how much pressure we, as mothers, place on ourselves – and its even crazier to extend that pressure to pets. How did this happen to me – and do any of you suffer from “dog mommy guilt??!!”

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