While recently standing in the CVS checkout line amid piles of Valentine schlock, my son—an inquisitive little guy—asked a question that most of us have surely pondered in our lifetimes. “Mom,” he said in a loud voice, “why do we need Valentine’s Day? I mean, aren’t we supposed to love everyone every day?”
There I was, surrounded by suddenly curious drug store customers, at a rare loss for words. Just a few days before I had (purely by coincidence) taken the question to Facebook: Is Valentine’s Day just a Hallmark-induced holiday, or does it mean something? Predictably the responses ran the gamut. Some relish the opportunity to show their special someone demonstrative love. Others consider Valentine’s Day little more than a contrived money-making boondoggle. A few people were sensitive to those who wouldn’t receive a Valentine—and how hurtful that could be.
So when my son asked the question, I was somewhat prepared.
Every year, on the night before Valentine’s Day, my husband and I decorate our kids’ rooms while they sleep. There are hearts and streamers. There are homemade messages strewn atop their furniture. We stick hearts in their underwear drawer and hearts in their lunchboxes. Balloons hang in the air. They get a special breakfast and I usually send them off to school with a hug and a bigger-than-usual “I love you!”
We love doing it, and they love it too.
At its best, Valentine’s Day is a reminder to recognize the loves in your life. It doesn’t have to be formulaic or mandated from large corporate interests. And just because those corporate interests exist doesn’t mean we have to scrap the entire holiday (If we did that, we would also have to do away with Christmas, Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Day).
Back when I was a girl my dad would come home from work on Valentine’s Day armed with a giant Hershey’s Kiss or a bouquet of flowers. It was the only time I received flowers or chocolate and it was special. As I grew older I had myriad Valentine’s Days without a Valentine. Many years were spent searching for the perfect Valentine and Valentine’s Day card, dinner, gift, etc. Some years were great and some were lonely.
But the bottom line is that sometimes people do need a reminder. We can get so busy we forget to appreciate the people we love. And there’s an oft-overlooked beauty in making the day special for someone else.
So with all this in my heart I asked my son a question in response to his question. “Yes,” I said, “it is true we should be kind and generous all the time. But what’s the harm in stepping up the game one day a year?”
To that, he had no answer. I told him I loved decorating his room and making the day a special day. I asked if he thought we could still do that. With a smile on his face he said we could. We went to pay for his Valentine’s cards for his classmates. The man at the register complimented my son for being a deep thinker and I smiled.
I focused on the joy I will try to bring to someone’s day on Valentine’s day. I don’t feel off the hook from treating people with love and kindness the rest of the year either. In fact, I feel more inspired.
Twenty years before my first child was born, my sister, Leah, and I traveled to Thailand together. We discovered a colloquialism that seemed ubiquitous to the country: Same same but different. Here is an example of how the words were employed. In a restaurant I order an orange. The waiter brings me kumquats. I say, “Um, I ordered an orange. These are kumquats.” The waiter responds, “Same same, but different.”
The saying was always greeted with a quizzical look from my sister and me. On the surface it doesn’t make any sense. How the heck can things be the same and also different?
Now, as a parent, I think of “same same but different” in a whole new light. Parents often use a one-size-fits-all approach with their children. Two kids take cookies without asking, and Mom and Dad punish them identically. No dessert for a week. You have two sons. They both get in scuffles on the schoolyard. Both received stern talking-tos and no TV for a week. This is how parents generally work. A punishment is a punishment is a punishment. The temperaments and personalities of the individual children are not considered.
But kids do not emerge from a one-size-fits-all box, and they often require very different responses to life’s challenges than their siblings.
I was reminded of this after listening to an episode of the This American Life podcast. The subject was regret. As a child Elna Baker was caught whacking her sister over the head with a broom. Her father—who would have simply punished his other children—instead decided the best route would be to conduct a mini-trial. Elna held steadfast that she didn’t commit the act on purpose. Instead of punishing Elna, her father did nothing. He let her get away with it. He figured that would be a more effective punishment for Elna.
And it was. Elna thought about the incident for the ensuing 15 years into adulthood. She is still apologizing.
Parents need to realize that while their kids are growing up in the same house, they need not be treated equally all the time. Kids will complain that parents aren’t being fair. Guess what? They are right. That’s OK.
It is impossible to make all efforts with your children equal. So stop trying. Give your children what they need, when they need it.
I snuggle and hug and kiss one child because it comforts him. And I blow a kiss to the other because that is right for her. One gets a new desk, one doesn’t. One needs more reminders to be thoughtful. One needs more time out while the other needs more discussion.
Same same, but different.
As I entered the kitchen this morning to make my much-needed hot tea, I saw the remnants of my son’s football-themed seventh birthday party. Presents and cards from friends piled up. Green-and-white streamers, paper footballs, a homemade team T-shirt left behind.
My husband and I have always tried to make birthdays special for our kids by hosting the parties at home. Our kids truly look forward to the moment when they see the decorations, the themed-cake (which takes me about seven hours to create), the games and crafts. They love it all. Even as my daughter approaches the teen years, she still cherishes the homemade party.
And yet, the party doesn’t make itself. It takes weeks of organization, shopping, ordering, and prepping. It is a task I love and fear all at once. How will I get it all done? If I spend all this time getting ready for the party, then I am not doing something at work. Or worse, I have to find a way to pact it all in.
I’m not great at finding balance. I came to this conclusion this morning when I work up exhausted. Headachy. Beaten down. I didn’t sleep well. I was too stressed about all I need to get done in the next few weeks. I have three conference presentations to write and present. I have two Halloween parties to organize and run. I have family dinners, school projects, and doctors’ appointments. I teach four weekly classes, I need to update my lesson plans. It all just feels like too much.
I often talk with other working moms about how they balance career and family life. What I have come to realize is that you cannot have it all. You can’t have a high profile career and make homemade goodies for every school-sponsored bake sale. You can’t travel for work and make sure that your kids have a healthy snack for lunch every day. You can’t make it to every class trip or art show or play and still meet all of your obligations at the office. You have to make choices and sacrifices.
I don’t care how many high-profile women (a la Sheryl Sandberg) pen best-selling books saying they have cracked the code. You can’t have a dream career, be successful at it and be able to be a full-time supermom. Somewhere, something has to give.
In my case —to be 100-percent honest—I haven’t cracked the code. I haven’t found a way to do it all. What inevitably happens is that I either try to do it all and find that I can’t (stress winds up trumping enjoyment). Or I give up doing something that I thought was important to me, like being a class parent, picking up from school, or making homemade _____ (fill in the blank).
Some working women are very driven by their work identity and are comfortable surrendering some of the day-to-day parenting tasks. Other women give up work altogether and devote themselves fulltime to parenting. These stay-at-home moms give up the idea of working outside of the home quite comfortably. Lastly, there are the moms (like me) who aren’t in either of those positions. I am not able to hand over a piece of work or a piece of parenting. This leaves me feeling perpetually behind the 8-ball—stressed, and feeling like I am not doing enough anywhere.
While I acknowledge my problems intellectually, I can’t find a way to change. I don’t know how to prioritize. It all seems important. I want to get tenure at work, which means doing more than just my job. But I also want my kids to feel like I was there for them in their childhood. I want them to remember the special touches—their birthday cakes, the handmade Halloween costumes, the Sunday dinners with family. I want them to know that, while I choose to work, I love them more than my job. I want them to know happiness in childhood so they can find it in adulthood.
I don’t know if I will accomplish my tenure or if I will give my kids the childhood I wanted them to have. For today, I will continue to walk the highwire trying to balance it all.
And I’ll try not to fall off.
So your previously delicious angel has turned into a screaming, biting, head banging, little trouble maker. Here is the good and the bad news. As children become more secure with their attachment to their parents they begin exploring their environment wanting independence. The good news is that as your child pushes him/herself to do more difficult tasks he/she will develop a strong self-esteem as well as learn to dress oneself, put on shoes, brush teeth, spread the butter on toast, etc. The bad news is that it can be frustrating to be a little guy/girl who wants badly to be able to make choices and do for himself but can’t always do so.
Toddlerhood, while difficult for children, can be brutal for the accompanying adult. However, there are ways to not only get through this time, but to grow as parents and children. Here are some tips that you can begin as soon as the first tantrum rears its ugly head:
- Manage your schedule so that you leave extra time for everything. Rushing just doesn’t work for toddlers.
- Plan less and accomplish more. The more you put on your plate and the plate of your toddler, the more opportunities there are for your plans to be thwarted by tantrums.
- Before you say no to your toddler who asks to do something for himself, think first if you can let him try. It is better to let your toddler try to put his shoes on and fail then it is to tell him he can’t do it. If you aren’t hovering and waiting to jump in there he will probably eventually ask you for help.
- This might sound like a cliché, but choices are very powerful. Whenever you can give your child a choice it is best because it makes him feel like he has some control over his environment.
- No matter how carefully you tread, you cannot avoid all tantrums. Sometimes little people are irrational. The best way to deal with an irrational, screaming child is to ignore him. No matter what, don’t give in. Sometimes the tantrum has to run its course with the child not getting his way to realize that a tantrum is not an appropriate way to get what he wants. If you give in to just end the screaming (which I know is insanely tempting), it only reinforces to the child that this act works.
- Remember that this is a phase. Your child isn’t trying to harass you or make your life more difficult. He is just trying to grow up.
Sending my daughter off to sleep-away camp was something I never questioned. It is what I did, and my sisters, and all of my cousins. It was the best time in my year and I learned half of what I know from my summers away. I can start a fire, put up a tent, canoe, sail, water ski, be independent, be a friend, a leader, a follower, and push myself to do something embarrassing. Most important, I learned to deal with people who I may not always like. Our head counselor, Helene Lebowitz, used to say “Girls, you don’t have to like each other, but you have to get along.” Helene taught me one of my most valuable lessons. I never forgot her or the lesson. I wanted my kids to have the same experience.
Basking in the glowing memories of my camp experience, it never occurred to me that I would be at home suffering and desperately missing my daughter. I wonder if she is getting any sleep. Did she make friends? Is she eating anything healthy? Did she find her toothbrush? Is she changing out of her bathing suit when it’s wet? Is she using a clean towel for the shower and not the yucky one from the lake? Did she get up on skies? What is she doing right now? How about now? What about now? You get the point.
To make my obsession even more voracious, the camps post photos of the kids. Parents pour over these photos waiting for a glimpse of a happy camper. This cartoon really makes me laugh because it is so true. Anyone who has sent their kids off to sleep-away camp can relate. Enjoy and try to laugh.