Quality time doesn’t end in elementary school

This was a great day in parenting world, and I didn’t even mean it to be.

Even as I work from home, I mix up worksites, and today I chose to sit on my bed and work. Ergonomists probably would cringe, but I have a back pillow, the view is great and it’s quiet there.

Enter my 22-year-old son, frustrated with his life. He came in and started talking. I must have seemed receptive, because he parked himself on my bed and kept going. I shut my laptop, put it aside and listened. He kept talking, lying down at one point. I occasionally offered specific advice, careful to keep it short and not reiterate it to death.

This went on for about an hour. Did I have work to do, something important he interrupted? Absolutely. Was it more important than giving him my undivided attention when he sought it? Absolutely not.

When he was done he left the room, calling back over his shoulder: thanks for listening, thanks for the suggestions. Anytime, I told him, and I meant it.

I would not trade this life for anything.

The cheese never stands alone

a block of cheese being sliced

a block of cheese being sliced

It’s not the grand gesture but the little one, even the tiny one, that is telling.

I was eating dinner the other night and my daughter came in and laid two slices of sharp cheddar cheese on my plate.

It might seem odd, to bring me a snack while I was clearly eating a meal.

But we have a rule in our house: There’s no such thing as too much cheese. Buying a single block of cheese is nearly pointless because it goes so quickly.

And it is universally loved. The joke now is for the slicer to ask, “Do you want some cheese?” and then laugh before the answer can come.

There was no question this time; I didn’t even know she was slicing. She just walked in, laid the cheese on my plate, smiled and walked away.

A tiny gesture, so precious.

All Hallow This Eve

As it was Halloween in America, I went to Walgreens and spent about 15 bucks on candy this morning. During the afternoon, I heard my lovely 20-year-old daughter rip into not just one but both bags.

She tried to suck up by offering me a box of Dots. “They’re probably all green ones,” I said, waving it away. We have a rule that we only buy candy we would want left over, but still I tried to save it for evening.

Come trick or treat time, I was gone. The extra person we have living in our home needed a ride to work.

No matter. We had a lamp outside to make up for the burned-out porch light we haven’t figured out how to fix, and my husband likes admiring the little ones and their costumes more than I do anyway. I made the obligatory stops at Target (work) and Taco Bell (felt lazy) and came home to find him making hash marks on the refrigerator whiteboard.

We had 23 beggars tonight. I answered the last knock and tried to get the two stragglers to take everything that was left in the bowl, telling them all they had to do in exchange was straighten up the lamp that had been knocked over. They said, “No, we have to leave some for Aidan,” but they took care to upright the small lamp anyway.

In preparation for their friend, I examined the bowl. There was an empty wrapper, which often happens, although I have yet to discern why. After picking it out there still were three pretty good candy options left in the bowl.

Aidan stumbled up with his pillowcase a minute later, but no amount of prompting would get him to speak the traditional words. No matter. I tipped the bowl into his pillowcase, waited until he made it down the porch steps and shut the lamp off.

What kind of parent? First, what kind of person?

These two can get along, so why not the children? ... asked the non-parent.
These two can get along, so why not the children? ... asked the non-parent.
These two can get along, so why not the children? … asked the non-parent.

My friend Samira wrote in her blog, mamasfeet (tagline: Join me through the journey of parenthood. Beware: There is no escape hatch.) asking What kind of parent are you?

Her children are small – a baby, one potty training and one finished – and I am so, so grateful to be far past that stage. When we worked together, her children were not yet born, so I only know them from pictures from afar (Houston and now Iran).

I was truly struck by one comment of hers: “In fact I plan on incorporating some new concepts I learned about to help authoritarian moms, like myself, get their point across without creating a disconnect.”

That was so not me. I considered my childhood strict, and while I wasn’t going to go flower child backwards, I’ll say my standards were relaxed a bit. No, the in-laws did not always seem to like the results, but my feeling on that was, “I live with these people, you don’t.”

So anyway, here’s what I told Samira. Feel free to chime in, and please do visit her blog as well:

I am so intrigued, and I say this without judgment, that you call yourself an authoritarian mom. For various reasons I was not that way, and I am interested in knowing how this acknowledgment of your own desire to continue that path will play out as your three blossom. (Please, please take that in love; I think you know that is what I mean.)

Yes, you want them to have the best of you, but that requires that you not lose yourself. So many of us put ourselves on hold while our children grow and it does not need to be that way.

My babies are nearly 20 and 21, girl and boy, and I am blessed they remain under my roof. Maddening though it is sometimes that we raised them to be independent thinkers, I would not change that. And my advice to any parent boils down to this: Pick your battles. Choose what is important to you, stand by it, and let the rest wash past you. In the process, your child learns your values, and that is the best gift we can offer.

Cookies don’t like cold eggs

My son mixing cookie dough.
My son mixing cookie dough.
My son mixing cookie dough.

I recently rattled off a number of tips for my son, who was baking some chocolate chip bar cookies, so I thought I’d share in case anyone reading this is new to baking.

He was reading a recipe for a 10 x 15 jelly roll pan. I have never owned one of those, and I bet none of my friends has, either. Put the dough in a 9 x 13 pan, I told him, and add 5 minutes to the baking time.

How will he know whether they’re done? I told him to try these tests, in order:

  • Does the dough jiggle when he starts to slide the pan or rack out?
  • If it seems solid, give it a little pressure with a finger. Is there resistance? Or does it make him nervous? Go with your gut.
  • If he took it out of the oven because it seemed done, give it a final test with a toothpick or a knife blade. Does it come out clean?

Now that we’ve addressed doneness, let’s jump backward, because that’s what we did here at home.

He was ready to jump into mixing, but all the ingredients weren’t out, and the oven was cold.

Not the best approach, I said. Remember, baking is much more like chemistry than cooking is, and there’s less room for error.

So I told him to do these things right away:

  • Preheat the oven.
  • Get out the stick butter (actually margarine) and eggs, because you want both to be room temperature.
  • To speed the butter-warming process, put the sticks on top of the oven. They will take advantage of both the ambient heat from the warming metal and whatever warm air vents from the oven. BUT if you’re not going to be paying close attention, put them on a saucer so you don’t end up with melted butter all over your stovetop.

Finally, he asked me about baking powder. It turns out the recipe does not call for baking powder, but baking soda, and he knows they are not interchangeable. (Got that? NOT.) He just wondered what baking powder does, and I replied in the most technical terms, that it makes cookies “poofy.”

Your takeaway from this? Ingredients expire. Just like spices, just like makeup – sorry if these are shocking revelations – baking powder and baking soda both have expiration dates that should be honored, because freshness makes a difference in your end product.

I told my son that I had made sure to buy new containers of both for Christmas baking. If yours are out of date, spend the less than $2 to get new ones so your baked goods rise properly. It’s a worthwhile investment.

Did I miss a basic baking tip? Have a horror story to share? I love comments, don’t be shy.

Mom, please buy chloroform

The actual list from my actual whiteboard on my actual refrigerator this afternoon.
The actual list from my actual whiteboard on my actual refrigerator this afternoon.
The actual list from my actual whiteboard on my actual refrigerator this afternoon.


Early on, I determined that running a household that consisted of more than me and one other adult was a prescription for crazy.

Babies, for example. They can be cute, sure, especially when they’re very small and still have that scent designed to keep their mothers from killing them. But they have more accessories than Barbie.

Once the offspring started school, it got worse. First, I had to learn to check backpacks, to find the permission slips wedged in the bottom so I didn’t have to deal with phone calls from school while I was on deadline inquiring whether it was OK with me if someone else drove my little darling to go look at chipmunks, and hadn’t I seen that form? Later, after a few missed Tiger Cub meetings because the den was drawn from two schools and ours didn’t get notes until the day of events, I learned to dump out their packs and folders the minute we all were home.

So what’s my point? Two things saved me: a notebook and whiteboards.

“The white notebook” became our most useful tool as soon as the kids were old enough to be in activities, which in the U.S. these days can be 4 or younger. I grabbed a cheap binder and about two dozen tabbed dividers, and sorted out our ever-growing paper pile. Hockey, soccer, softball, volleyball, all the sports got tabs for the schedules and coach info. Theater, altar serving at church, anything else with a schedule got its own tab. Each child got a tab devoted to progress and grade reports. Another tab went to school, for calendars, dress codes and anything else I might be tested on. Lunch menus got their own tab, so my daughter could find them quickly.

Over time, my children learned to turn to the notebook to check things. It wasn’t all business, either. The very front tab was “things to do,” as we got flyers or postcards about exhibits or events we might want to attend. It also kept maps and schedules for some of our favorite places.

Having the notebook lessened the burden on our refrigerator, which no longer displayed magnetic clips crammed full of papers, all fighting for recognition as most important. Instead, this magnificent appliance could properly be used as display space for student artwork, photos and pizza coupons.

And whiteboards.

I have delegated any number of household tasks. My children learned to do laundry in middle school, for example, when I got fed up with asking for their dirty clothes over the weekend, only to be told Monday morning that they had no clean uniform pants because … how is this my fault? And yet I suffered. And from my pain came their self-sufficiency.

The whiteboards came about because people would blithely announce “we’re out of toilet paper” or some such, and consider themselves absolved of any further responsibility … whether or not I had heard them. You can imagine how quickly that got old.

Hence the list, and the rule: “If you don’t tell me you need something, don’t be mad if I don’t get it.” This is especially true with items others in the house value, such as coffee grounds, but which I rarely notice because I don’t often make coffee. Or foods I never use, such as horseradish.

As you can see above, I live with smartasses. But at least they communicate their needs.

I said whiteboards, plural, and that’s because there is a second one for conveying information to children. They are expected to notice it at least once a day. Right now, it says two things:

• J: dust, including ceilings & fans

• Sprint store

The other child has no posted chore because 1) she has been assigned all dishes and pots until she has 10 or more hours per week of non-school obligations, and 2) she has done other things as soon as I ask, hence no reminders.

However, as the only non-employed child, the Sprint store notice is entirely directed at her. The boy has two jobs and a multilevel marketing business. The bonus boy (and source of the chloroform request) has a job. But until this happened over the summer, and as we nudge the other one toward less reliance on federal student aid to pay for school, every time we are out and about and see that someone is hiring, we post it.

They’re simple measures, but they work for us. Writing things down cuts way back on the blame game. What works for you?

High times on my sidewalk

So this child, not mine, walks in my house and says, “Mom, Lisa’s embarrassed to come in because she’s high.”

(Needless to say, Lisa is not her name.)

I didn’t react, so he repeated himself.

Oh, I realized, processing. He’s calling ME Mom. Cool with that.

Then the rest of what he says kicks in.

“She’s embarrassed?” He confirms. “Because she’s high?” He confirms again.

The child in question is 20, I’m pretty sure, and we’ve known her for years. I’m not sure what to make of her embarrassment and announce, “I’m going to go hug her.”

I padded outside and didn’t hug her, as it would have been the first time ever and highly suspicious, but I did invade the conversation that was going on and pointedly admire her sneakers. She answered politely, but kept turning her face away.

I don’t think any less of her. But I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to mess with her.

The right tool, calendar version

Mom's Family Calendar
Mom's Family Calendar
A critical tool in the family organization arsenal

Finally! After one child searched and came up empty-handed the other day, the other has retrieved one of our critical tools: the Mom’s Family Calendar.
Most calendars have squares that are too small to squeeze in four people’s activities, particularly during the evils of March and school activities/spring sports. Then my husband took to highlighting his activities in yellow, which was great for him but a nuisance for the rest of us.
My son brought home one of these calendars from a school book fair and I fell in love with it. For a family of four, especially, its five columns are perfect: Mom and Dad on one side, each child on the other, and a center column labeled ALL for functions that everyone is expected to attend. I’ve used these for about six years now and was feeling lost without one.

Mom's Family Calendar page
Five columns! Perfect for us

* I get absolutely nothing for sharing this. The companies involved never have heard of me. We truly have come to rely on this tool and I thought it might help someone else.

The difference between boys and girls is cake

I was blessed with a boy and a girl, so I get the best and worst of both worlds. Sometimes, there’s not a lot of difference. For instance, my daughter is no delicate flower, and it’s generally accepted that on the occasions she really wants to haul off and deck her brother, he’s in for battle.
Other times, though, the gender stereotypes are astoundingly clear. Hair preparation is miles and hours apart, for example, although the boy will use a straightener once in a great while.
The line shone white and bright in unexpected fashion recently when it came time to plan my son’s high school graduation party.
For the most part, there was going to be a minimum of fuss. He knew there would be childhood photographs and didn’t bother arguing. I knew he wouldn’t care about centerpieces so I didn’t plan to have any. Next year with the girl, it will be a different matter, as she will have many ideas and be quite particular about how they are carried out.
Not so the boy. Good food, he said, and casual so my friends can just drop by and hang out. That’s all he cared about.
Still, I wanted his input on a couple of items, like the cake. Chocolate is fine, he said. Or white. He preferred chocolate. But whatever.
“What about filling?” I asked.
Deer in the headlights. I had to keep from laughing.
“Filling,” I repeated.
“I didn’t know cakes could have filling,” he croaked.
“You’ve had them. Cherry, strawberry. Lemon or blueberry, even.”
Still with the wide eyes.
“You don’t have to have filling. It’s just an option.”
OK. No filling.
“Frosting color?”
More wide eyes.
“School colors?”
Relief washed over his face. “Yes. School colors. Navy blue and light blue,” he instructed, like after four years I didn’t know what they were.
A brief consult settled wording and we were done. Inside, though, I still was grinning.

Overheard, ice version

    I think we’re finally done with winter here. We had a glorious weekend. Both kids visited the state park with friends, and said most of the snow is gone out there.

    For those who have never seen what it looks like when the ice blows into Saginaw Bay, look at these photos.

    Which leads to the overheard comment, from someone who apparently also had never seen the ice blow in: “Wow, I didn’t know they plowed the bay.”