On my daughter’s graduation, I’m grading myself–and everybody else

My daughter’s elegant e-bay-purchased prom dress hangs in her bedroom. On Facebook, other moms are posting pics of their high school seniors wearing big smiles and Tshirts announcing their college choices. My gmail box is filled with notices from the high school urging me to buy ribbons, sunglasses and seat cushions to “help support the class of 2013”  or to remember important dates: the Prom, the Vocal Concert, the Awards Program, Commencement. But my favorite email is the one that’s already triggering empty-nest nostalgia with its reminder from the principal that there will be “discipline consequences” if students arrive at school wearing “sagging pants, hats, short shorts, short skirts, bare midriffs, tank tops, spaghetti straps, strapless tops and dresses.”

Final transcripts will be sent home soon, but I’m pausing for a moment to give a report card to myself and my fellow mothers. These are the women with whom I once traded labor stories and mastitis remedies before we moved on to debating the grand consequences of allowing our kids to play with guns, sticks, Barbies, Pokemon cards, Game Boys. We worried: Should we let them eat sugary cereal? Lunchables? Surf the Net? How come Katy has the only kid who will eat kale? What happens if they don’t get the “good” Kindergarten teacher, or don’t test into the “better” math class? Is it safe for them to go to this party or that concert? Can we trust them behind the wheel?

Whatever their age or stage, we worried about whether we were doing a good enough job as mothers. So what grade should we and their fathers earn? Here’s the final report card:

Our children did amazingly well on their SATs, they got busted for having hashish in their backpacks, captained their school’s soccer teams, grappled with dyslexia and ADHD, got detention, won awards for their poetry and community service, pierced their tongues, tattooed their arms, taught themselves Russian, failed algebra, acted like mean girls, stood up to mean girls, played too many video games, spent their vacation time volunteering at food banks, quit the hockey team, learned to dance, posted knuckle-headed comments on Facebook, took up photography, and floored us with both their lame-brained antics and stunning acts of kindness and generosity.

As parents we earn an H for Human. Our kids are growing up to be as gloriously, beautifully imperfect as we are. And today, I think that’s more than good enough.

If your child is a recent or current graduate I’d love to hear from you. How do you think you’ve done? Do you wish you had raised them differently? In the end, how much of a difference do all of those “micro decisions” that make  up the minutiae of parenting really matter?

For new moms, parenting well together a key to relationship satisfaction

When a new mother feels her partner agrees on how to raise their baby, not only the child benefits–she does, too. That’s the big takeaway from the latest study to come out of Kent State’s ongoing “Baby Transitions in Marital Exchanges” research (aka Baby T.I.M.E.). In the latest work, doctoral candidate Brian Don and other researchers interviewed 77 mostly middle-class and married heterosexual couples twice, at four and nine months after the birth of their first baby.  Women who initially felt that their partner shared their parenting style (meaning they felt they were pretty much on the same page about childcare values, philosophy and practices) were both more satisfied with their relationship and less likely to be depressed at the second assessment than were the other new moms. For new dads, this sense of being on the same team didn’t influence how happy they were in the relationship, but it was associated with less likelihood of depression too. Why were women’s view of their relationship more influenced by their partner’s perception of the parenting connection than men’s? Researchers theorize that “because of the importance of the parenting role to mothers, they may place more emphasis and value on parenting
agreement than fathers.” Previous research suggests that co-parenting attitudes tend to remain fixed even as the child grows and presents parents with more complex challenges. So working on the parenting alliance from the start can pay dividends for both parents over the years.

Do good wives make bad mothers?

Do good wives make bad mothers? How’s that for a loaded question! In 2013, what qualities make a woman a “good wife”  or a “good mother” anyway?

The opposite question, “do good moms make bad wives?”  was debated a while back on the Huff Post divorce page where Jackie Morgan MacDougall argued that those perfect moms–with their talent for all things craftsy and their trigger-happy willingness to volunteer at school–are not showing the love to their husbands. (How she knows this is unclear.) It’s true that there are some moms others just delight in hating. You know, the ones who always have the time and energy to make their children the most awesome sunflower costumes and always (or ever) sign up to chaperone class trips despite working full-time at amazing careers. The mere existence of these mothers, who lack even a mote of ambivalence about driving their kid 45-minutes to a gymnastics class three times a week, can lead others to question their own adequacy. So it can be cathartic to assume that their husbands must really, really hate them–or at least feel neglected.

But what about women who make no bones that their husbands come first? (Or gay couples where one or both spouses always put the relationship ahead of parenting?) Are their kids worse off for this devotion? No doubt, there are benefits to growing up in a happy, two-parent household. Such offspring get to witness up-close what a healthy, long-lasting adult relationship looks like. It’s hard to over-emphasize the value in that. But what if some of these kids are also getting the daily message that they are “second best?” That, if Daddy needs her, Mommy is going to drop them like a hot potato?  A good friend describes her own childhood as being raised by “Ronald and Nancy Reagan,” a famously devoted couple who were also notoriously .Ronald and Nancy Reagan

challenged as parents. My friend grew up with a revolving door of babysitters because her parents often dined out and traveled “alone together.” Her stay-at-home mother’s motto was “Dad comes first” and her actions made that clear. He was served before all others at dinner (and that meal never commenced until he came home from work–even if that meant 9 pm). The TV in the family room was turned to Dad’s favorite show. On car rides, Dad chose the radio station. “My father thought Mom was over-the-top with this attitude, but he certainly appreciated the attention.” Now with three kids of her own, my friend has created a very child-centric life. She and her husband eschew date night for Family Night. “If you don’t want to spend your free time playing Apples to Apples with your kids you shouldn’t be a parent,” she insists. She says her husband is supportive and I’m going to go with that.

A while back, the novelist Ayelet Waldman caused a stir when she declared she loved her husband more than her kids. But I always thought that was a false dichotomy. Love that’s rooted in a romantic companionship of equals has a different quality than love founded in nurturing and protecting the vulnerable. That’s why people can be great parents but lousy spouses or exes. And vice versa. So whether kids get shortchanged by a mother’s devotion to her husband depends on whether she prioritizes based on who she loves “best” rather than who needs her most at the moment.

Of course, the whole notion of judging women based on how well they perform at these two roles is loaded. Can’t we just stop with all of the judging? And why is it that the question, “do good husbands make bad dads?” is somehow not so provocative? head-scratching.

I’d love to hear your answers!

 

“Don’t Tell Daddy”–should you keep your child’s secrets? 5 rules to follow

It’s a dilemma all parents–married or divorced–eventually face. Your child is upset and wants to confide in you (great!), but in you alone (maybe not so great?). Parents often assume that if a child is requesting secrecy, he or she must have done something they don’t want the more hard-assed parent to discover. It’s true that “Don’t Tell Dad” conversations often end up being about the child’s wrongdoing, like getting a time-out at school, failing an algebra test or being busted by the dorm RA for smoking weed. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes kids are afraid to squeal on another child or fear parental hurt or disappointment, rather than the adult’s anger or announcement of consequences..

I talked this “tell or don’t tell?” dilemma over with New Jersey parenting coach Fern Weis, who acknowledged there can be some tough calls, especially in the teen years. “You want them to open up to you. But what if that’s at the expense of the trust you share with your partner? If we agree to keep a secret, what does that teach our kids about the importance of telling the truth?” On the other hand, she points out, we don’t want to miss an opportunity to connect with our kids and sometimes we have to consider the specific circumstances.

I’m trying to develop some ground rules for when “not telling” is okay. It’s an easy call to not divulge the child’s secret if the other parent is abusive. In such cases, your primary responsibility is to protect. But kids can also be manipulative–trying to get an ironclad promise out of the “easier” parent before confessing a misdeed. As Weis points out, “your credibility is really at stake.”

So here are the five pointers I’ve come up with so far. Let me know what you think of them–and what advice you have to add.

Don’t agree ahead of time. The classic, “If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell Dad [or Mom]?” should be met with, “I can’t promise before I know what it is.” This demand for secrecy is a sign of how worried the child is–and how anxious to have you involved. That means that he or she will probably tell you what’s up anyway, even without your agreeing to keep your lips sealed.

Be supportive. Don’t express anger at your child for asking you to keep a secret. If your answer is “no,” be gentle about it. Say something like, “I can’t promise not to tell Mom. But my number one goal is to help you. I’m going to love you no matter what you tell me,  and I really want what’s best for you.”

Ask why it’s a secret. Sometimes, you can get a child to spill just by asking questions about the need for secrecy. Try open-ended queries like, “What do you think Dad would say if you told him?” or “How do you think Mom will react?”.

Don’t make a promise you aren’t going to keep. Don’t say you’ll stay silent if you plan to blab to your partner. The bottom line is that you want your child to consider you trustworthy.

Encourage your child to talk to the other parent. Once your daughter confesses that she didn’t follow through on her promise to button the jacket pocket that held the $5 her Dad gave her and thus lost the money on her class trip, urge her to tell him directly rather than use you as a go-between. Unless you know her father won’t react appropriately, teach her to deliver her own bad news. Sometimes, when kids do something wrong they feel like such “evil-doers” that they exaggerate in their minds how horribly their parent will react. Coming clean allows kids to learn childhood’s happiest lesson: that they can be bad, wrong and imperfect–and still be worthy of their parents’ love.

12 questions for the husbands of exhausted working moms

Over at The Atlantic, Alexandra Bradner has a great piece on the endless childcare and household duties that burden working mothers, as well as the defensive responses she received when she asked husbands to comment on their spouse’s feelings of exploitation and their “please do” wish lists for their husbands:

“Some men wrote carefully crafted arguments about different culturally conditioned spheres of expertise and talent; some listed all of the chores they did—mostly garbage and yard work; and others were afraid to speak at all, for fear of taxing their already stressed marriages.”

Bradner, a philosophy professor at the University of Kentucky, recommends husbands shift their perspective and take on more of the domestic burden not just because it’s “fair,” but because it’s an act of kindness to the exhausted person you love. To that end, she offers 12 questions husbands looking to be more active in home and family life ought to ask themselves. (She thinks that, sometimes, men don’t do more because so many childraising tasks are “invisible” and they remain unaware of how time-consuming and stressful they can be.)

What do you think of this list? Any questions you would add or subtract from it?

DO I:

1. Do half of the laundry and half of the dishes every day?
2. Buy half of the clothes and toys?
3. Take on half of the management of my care providers?
4. Write half of the lists and notes?
5. Wake up in the middle of the night to calm the baby half of the time?
6. Change half of the diapers?
7. Plan half of the travel?
8. Track half of the household budget?
9. Put the kids to bed half of the time?
10.Make half of the grocery, sports, and afterschool lesson runs?
11. Write half of the e-mails to my kids’ teachers?
12 Watch the kids for half of the weekend and for half of every weeknight?

 

A divorce coach’s 6 tips on parenting–for married couples

Here’s a great exercise for married couples. Imagine you’ve split up and have to work out the nitty-gritty of parenting together with two separate households. Which rules would be the same? Which different? How would you negotiate homework, discipline, bed times, the ratio of kale vs Pop-Tarts in your child’s diet? It’s common wisdom that when parents divorce, being able to cooperate and respect each other as co-parents makes all the difference in how the kids fare. Many married parents don’t realize the same holds true for their children. Even in families where parents rate their marriage highly, the kids suffer when there are constant disagreements about parenting. But unlike divorcing couples, if you’re happily married yet come from different parenting planets, no court order is going to usher you into counseling or parenting classes. You aren’t “forced” to learn the fine art of negotiation, or to work on respecting each others values.

If your and your spouse’s co-parenting skills could use help, why not try some advice aimed at divorced parents? Case in point: this recent post from divorce coach Rosalind Sedacca on Huff Post. Below I’ve applied some of her co-parenting rules to married couples:

1. Make sure kids get alone-time with both parents. Even in intact families there can be an imbalance in how much parenting each partner does. This is especially true when there’s a stay-at-home parent and a breadwinner. It’s easy to fall into a pattern where the out-of-the-house parent doesn’t spend one-on-one time with each kid. But it’s critical that both parents make it a priority for each child to have a relationship with both parents individually.

2. Don’t argue about the kids in front of the kids.  No child wants to be caught in parental crossfire.

3. Don’t turn your child into a confidante or friend. When you’re pissed off at your spouse, don’t confide in or vent to your kid. It’s not her problem and shouldn’t be her burden.

4. Don’t make your child the messenger. You’re right, it’s not fair that somehow you’re always the one who gets stuck driving the soccer-practice carpools. But if you want your spouse to know that tonight is his or her turn, communicate directly. Don’t put your kid in the middle. Your child shouldn’t have to start sentences with,  “Mommy  [or Daddy] says you have to…”

5. Don’t think like a solo parent. Even if only one parent works outside the home, you are still equally responsible for your child’s well-being. Neither of you should make major parenting decisions alone.

6. Be flexible.  As Sedacca says, “Every time you bend, go with the flow, compromise and cooperate with your co-parent you model the kind of behaviors that benefit both of you in the long-term. Flexibility reduces defensiveness and builds bridges toward better parenting solutions. Remember, every time you forgive and indulge irritating behavior without creating an issue, you are doing it to make life easier for your child. Isn’t he or she worth it?”

 

The Sleep-Deprived Marriage

Nothing brings out the fault lines in a relationship like the joy of having a new baby. You’re so exhausted you find yourself shrieking at your beloved for putting the cream cheese on the wrong shelf in the fridge. Meanwhile, your mate is on the verge of a tantrum because the instructions for the “EZ assemble” crib are all in Italian, which is, of course, your fault. You read the baby-book advice on not neglecting your marriage and the supreme importance of Date Night. So there you both are at the Organic Sushi Bistro, equipped with two smart phones, and two smart phone chargers (having asked for a table near an outlet, just in case) so you can team-tag checking on the babysitter. One of you is doing just that, while the others head begins to bob gently over the edamame.

Some 70 percent of couples experience a drop in marital happiness on the arrival of parenthood. The reasons are understandable, mostly to do with very real differences of opinion concerning how the baby should be cared for and by whom. Typically, women complain that their partners aren’t doing enough, while men feel they should be applauded for how much they are doing, especially compared with their own fathers whose only childcare role (if he was even around) was baby’s emcee as in, “Honey, his diaper needs changing!” Guys feel cheated as their alone-time with the new mother gets crowded out by the baby’s endless, desperate needs. And then, of course, there are always the bottomless expenses a baby requires to unnerve both parents more. Meanwhile, your entire value structure–what you think is Important and what you feel “meh” about–shifts dramatically once you have offspring. A lot of these new-parent worries are rooted in serious issues. But they loom extra large when you’re exhausted.. What your marriage needs more than anything right now is probably sleep. A new study out of the University of California at Berkeley underlines this, finding that sleep deficits make couples feel unappreciated by their partner. So yes, get some responsible adult to come over and babysit. But skip Date Night in favor of Sleep Night. Go to bed early. Do this often enough and your partner’s flaws, which now seem so severe and entrenched that they threaten the core of your marriage, can once again become tolerable, adorable foibles. Until PMS returns.

“I Want Mommy!” How do you handle a kid who plays favorites?

You know those days when you child worships the other parent as nothing less than an emissary from Mount Olympus while you are greeted with the same enthusiasm she reserves for a plate of lentils? For some reason, dining out seems to encourage this behavior. You sidle into your booth at the kid-friendly, sticky-plastic-menu-restaurant, only to be shoved by your offspring, who announces that only sitting next to Daddy will do. Or, at three A.M. your six-year-old, who claims to be on the verge of death-by-dehydration, refuses so much as a dribble of water if it isn’t delivered by Mommy. At times like these, parenthood can feel like a bad middle-school drama where you are definitely not invited to the cool table.

I’d love to hear how different couples handle this situation. A toddler or pre-schooler’s favoritism can be subtle, but sometimes the hostility toward one parent is so thick it’s troubling. No blog or parenting web expert can diagnose why a particular kid is voting Mom or Dad off the island or tell you whether it’s something to worry about. But, if all else seems to be going well for a child and the snubbing hasn’t gone on for months, it’s probably just a part of growing up.  At different stages kids gravitate more toward one parent or the other for various developmental reasons. There certainly isn’t one perfect approach to handling these slights. But here are some guidelines I’ve culled from talking with parents, child psychologists, and child psychologists who are parents:

Don’t Compete. It’s a fact of parenthood that kids play favorites. But vying to be number one in Junior’s heart by overtly or subtly encouraging him to love you more is going to wound both your marriage and your kid.

Keep Your Sense of Humor The best response when your daughter bats her lashes at Dad and treats Mom like the evil stepmother (or vice versa) is a good natured laugh. Repeat to yourself over and over that your child’s feelings are perfectly normal and not any indication of your real worth to him or the world. You wouldn’t take as gospel a two-year-old’s objective assessment of anything else, so why should his current view of your self-worth or parenting skills merit serious consideration?

Indulge It. As long as a child’s preference doesn’t infringe on others’ rights or inconvenience them there’s no harm in granting a child’s request to sit next to his current favorite or have Daddy read his goodnight story. (Lopsided affection is sometimes a sign that the kid has missed one parent lately.)

Let Them Know It Hurts.  Guide kids toward seeing that playing favorites makes people feel bad. By three or four, children start to understand that their words and actions affect others. But it’s still implausible to them that they could truly influence the emotions of their all-powerful parents. The discovery can be pretty eye-opening to a young child. You don’t want to instill guilt in a kid for doing what comes naturally, so a light touch is recommended. Just point out how it makes you or the other parent feel. The odds are that your child isn’t going to grasp what you’re saying in any comprehensive way. But it’s still worth laying the groundwork. (In older kids, showing a preference is deliberate mean-ness and should be addressed as such.)

Keep Them in Their Place. It’s a normal part of growing up for young kids to develop “crushes” on one parent or the other. When he was a toddler, Ethan whined whenever his father announced he was going on a business trip. But at five that whining was replaced by a look of calculation in his young eyes. “Good,” he announced matter-of-factly. “I can kiss Mommy like you do.” Ethan needed to be told gently that kissing Mommy like grown-ups do wasn’t goiing to happen, whether his dad was at home or on Mars. Ethan wasn’t happy to hear the news, but life is filled with such necessary disappointments.

Get Used to It. Expect to spend plenty of time as the unfavored parent. By the teen years it will probably even out–it’s doubtful your kid will friend either of you on Facebook.

I’d love to hear what you think of this advice and if you have anything to add.

Parenting and Power Dynamics–think about where you sit

Here’s some great advice from parenting wise-man Bruce Fieler on seating arrangements when you and your partner need to discuss parenting differences: “My wife and I even changed where we have difficult conversations, moving from my office, where I was sitting in the `power position’ with her six inches lower, to a window seat in our bedroom, where we can be side by side at the same level.” Shifting the power dynamics so that neither partner is sending, or receiving, the message that one of you expects to dominate the discussion and the decisions you reach is a great way to start. Especially if you’re about to have what I call a “what WERE we thinking?” meeting where you go over (or “process” as the psychologists say) a parenting mishap. Feiler’s newest book, The Secrets of Happy Familiesdetails how he and his wife field-tested advice on team-building and problem-solving from such unexpected sources–for kid-raising tips–as the Green Berets and Google. I’d love to hear how you keep the discussion even-handed when you disagree about what’s best for your kids.

Why do divorcing couples get “all” the support?

According to one survey, at least 46 states have mandated or established co-parenting programs for divorcing couples. For good reason: reams of psychological research into the children of splitting-up couples has shown unequivocally that parental conflict is damaging to the kids. But guess what, it’s not only the children of divorcing couples who experience the harm of parental conflict. Happy couples are never perfectly so, and plenty of their kids find themselves caught in the middle of tug-of-wars, whether sparked by exhaustion over 3 am feedings, who gets to decide whether the big bed is for Parents Only or how strenuously to enforce the “no texting at the table” rule. When you become parents together you embark on one of the most profound and emotionally disruptive journeys humans can undertake. But unless you’re actually calling it quits, no one “orders” you to sit down, talk out your differences about parenting and come up with a plan and a way to handle disagreements that protect your kids from fall-out.

Our notions of what makes a family are changing, due to the commonplace frequency of divorce, single-by-choice parenting, same-sex parents, and, most recently, co-parents who are not romantic “couples.” Whatever your opinion of this shift in family life, these changes highlight an often over-looked truth about traditional “parenting while married.” Couples have a relationship as co-parents that is separate from their connection as loving, life partners. That bond needs to be strengthened, nurtured and supported just as much as the romantic one. And “date night” isn’t going to be enough to do it. So if you find yourself frequently breaking that “not in front of the children” rule of couple conflict, find some support. No state or county is going to step in and force you to do better by your kids. It’s up to you.

http://www.courts.state.ny.us/ip/parent-ed/A%20Nationwide%20Survey%20of%20Mandatory%20Parent%20Education.pdf