Monday, January 26, 2009

Tapping into the Network — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

"Call it a clan, call it a network, 
call it a tribe, call it a family.
Whatever you call it, whoever you are, 
you need one."
— Jane Howard, Families (1978)

Often, woman have been accused (and guilty) of being catty, backstabbing Mean Girls. I challenge you to find a girl or woman who hasn't suffered the slings and arrows of a group of nasty wenches. BC (before children), I steered clear of girl groups. I had a few close friends I met between junior high and college, and we are still friends today, but I never really joined much of anything. Blame my mother, she wasn't a joiner, either.

When my twins were born at 24 weeks, I was completely overwhelmed. At just a pound and a half, they spent more than five months in the hospital being watched over every minute of the day by literally hundreds of talented, caring professionals. At first, it was difficult to find my place. I couldn't hold them, I couldn't nurse them, I couldn't care for them. I felt pretty lost, and certainly did not feel like a mom, whatever that was supposed to feel like.

About a month or so after they were born, a neighbor came by — a women with three kids, including a set of year-old twins. She invited me to come with her to a Mothers of Multiples (MOMs) meeting. I gave her a bunch of excuses, ending with the fact that I wasn't really a mother to them yet. She looked at me for a minute and then said: "You're their mother. I'll pick you up at 7:15."

I will be forever grateful to that woman for reaching out to me and dragging me to my first MOMs meeting. It changed my life — as a mother and as a woman. For the first time, I was plugged in to the powerful network that is motherhood.

Our MOMs group met once a month in each others' homes and usually had a terrific speaker. To this day, I pull from the parenting advice those speakers offered. But, as valuable as the speakers were, it was the camaraderie of the women in that group that saved my life.

Many of the new moms I met at that time approached motherhood like a competition, bringing the full force of their expensive educations and high-level jobs to the table of motherhood. These women competed about everything: whose child spoke first, whose was potty trained first, what preschool they got into. It was overwhelming, not to mention ridiculous, and even if I had wanted to participate, my twins were not in the running. Boasts of "Well, they're both still breathing this week," got me nothing but pity at a time when I thought breathing was the greatest accomplishment in the world.

The women in my MOMs group were a whole different story. They were so grateful if they got to shower before five in the afternoon, that they didn't have time for one-up-womanship. When you are trying to nurse two babies at once or chasing two toddlers around the house or keeping up with ever-growing mountains of laundry, all bets are off. You learn pretty quickly that it's survival of the fittest and that you better hone your sense of humor. These moms just got it.

To be fair, most of the nastiness of competitive motherhood evaporated with the births of second children. Over the years, I have joined a number of other groups; some have provided temporary connections to get me through a certain phase of life, and some have provided life-long friendships. My network has continued to expand with book clubs, writing groups, PTAs and any number of support groups, including those for families of children with special needs, families with preemies, families with curly-blond-haired math geeks — OK, I made that last one up, but you get my point. Today, the Internet provides even more possibilities for tapping into the network — for finding and hooking up with people from all over the world who get it.

Along the way, I have met women who understand the challenges of infertility, who know better than to say things like: "Tom and I have decided we want a June baby." I have found women who know the difference between morning sickness and hyperemesis gravidarum (puking nonstop during pregnancy) — they get it. I have leaned on women who understand that even though I love my children more than I can ever say, today they are making me totally and completely crazy. I have had moms save my neck when I was stuck in traffic and couldn't make preschool pickup in time (or Hebrew school pick up, or chess club pick up, or … ).

I've saved my share of necks, too. It is in the Mom Code of Ethics that if you can do something for another mom, even a virtual stranger, then you do it. You pay it forward, not so that particular person pays you back, but because you know that you'll need help someday soon. It's like having a healthy savings account in the Bank of Mom.

Just last week, I spent some time on the phone with a mom who is beginning to have her son tested for learning disabilities. My special needs son is now 17, and we've been on this path for a long time. I was happy to share my experience, making another deposit into the Bank of Mom. Today, I reached out by email to another mom whose special needs son is further along the path than mine. I've never met this woman, but she is happy to share her experiences with me as I make my withdrawal from the Bank of Mom.

To all the women who have offered me love, support, a shoulder to cry on, a kick in the pants, or a girly martini, I say thanks for being there and thanks for getting it. To those of you just starting your journey, I strongly encourage you to tap into the network.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't going to support group meetings or balancing her account at the Bank of Mom, she can be found blogging at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Tapping Into the Network

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who pay it forward and those who don't. 

In my experience, moms know better than almost anyone else the concept of paying it forward. To become a parent is to know the humility of being utterly incapable of pulling this thing off without a little help now and again. 

My new post of this same title on the Chicago Moms Blog (click here to read it) explores my experiences with becoming part of the world-wide mom network. Please leave a message here let me know what you think or how joining a particular network of support has changed your life.

In the spirit of mom networking (and since I have finally finished the first draft of my own middle-grade novel — yay!), I'd like to do a little paying it forward for my fellow Mom Blogger Romi Lassally by linking to her soon-to-be released book called True Mom Confessions: Real Moms Get Real. I'm ordering it now!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Regarding Teachers

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. 
 — Henry Adams 
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are teachers and those who are not. 

Some of my best friends are teachers, including my mother, who has never really forgiven me (or my brother) for not following in her footsteps. 

If you are lucky, you will experience at least one truly wonderful teacher in your life. If you do, you will carry that memory and those lessons with you forever, even if you didn't recognize the gift at the time.  

We've all heard the claims about the cushy lives teachers lead: short hours, great vacations, summers off and autonomy in the classroom. Don't you believe it. Teaching is hard. How do I know? Well, my mother and my teacher friends have told me their horror stories. As a parent, I've observed nearly 100 teachers who have had the herculean task great pleasure of trying to meet the disparate learning needs of my four very different children. And now I'm experiencing it first hand as a newly minted substitute teacher. Let me tell you, it's been an eye-opening experience.

While I have taught before — everything from preschool through graduate-level adults — I am not a teacher in the traditional sense of the word. My formal ed school experience was limited to one disastrous semester my sophomore year (don't ask). 

In many ways, teaching is like parenting: it's the constant, all day, every day nature of the thing that will drag you down. In the course of any given day a teacher, in addition to educating her students, will be called upon to act as: manager, nurse, cop, judge, disciplinarian, mediator, secretary, parent, social worker, guidance counselor and confessor, to name just a few.

Unlike parenting, teachers don't have the biological or emotional imperative to work toward the success of their students. They must summon from within themselves the dedication, perseverance, sense of humor, and something else — a certain je ne sais quoi — that enables them to try to reach a new group of students every year. You can't pick and choose your students; all are strangers in the beginning and some are very hard to like. From all reports, it's the ability to touch a student in some profound way that keeps teachers coming back September after September, despite mediocre pay, little respect and lots of contagious diseases.

I don't think substitutes get those same kinds of warm fuzzies. Substitute teaching is like babysitting — your primary responsibility is to keep everyone safe and busy until the real deal returns. In just a few days of subbing, I've learned that group dynamics are everything, you have to set the tone in the first 60 seconds, and that the most important asset for a teacher (substitute or otherwise) is a sense of humor.

As I started on this journey, I sought advice from a variety of sources. My mother told me not to be late and to dress professionally. My 17-year-old daughter told me to be sure to introduce myself and:  "Don't pretend to know something you don't know. You'll just look like an idiot." My teacher friends told me not to complain about anything. Absent teachers don't want to know that Johnny was throwing spit wads, or that Sally and Amy wouldn't shut up, or that A.J. tried to scam 15 extra minutes of recess. Unless the building burns down, the absent teacher just wants to pick up where she left off.

I also had the opportunity to learn from a 20-year veteran, Phillip Done, an award winning teacher who recently published 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching. Whether you're a teacher or a principal, a parent or a truck driver, whether you've had a third grader or only been one, this witty little treasure will keep you laughing while teaching you everything Mr. Done has ever learned.

Mr. Done is a real teacher. He knows this because he has sung "Happy Birthday" 657 times; he can fix zippers that won't zip; and he can make a totem pole out of oatmeal boxes. In these short, clever tales that cover the school year, Done takes us from pie-eating contests through third grade musicals. He laments his annual first-day-of-winter-break virus:

"Why does this happen to me every December? I was so careful this year too. I handed out Kleenex every morning when the kids walked through the door … Next year this will not happen. Next year if I hear so much as a sniffle, I'm not letting any of them into the classroom without a note from the surgeon general."

He extols the value and virtues of garage saling for teachers:

"I walked over to one of the boxes, put down my coffee mug, and started to shake. The boxes were filled with Madelines and Babars, and Encyclopedia Browns and Nancy Drews in almost perfect condition! This was better than Vegas!"

He admonishes the late, great Roald Dahl for using the word "ass" in chapter 6 of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

"Do you know what it's like having a classroom full of third graders read that word? Do you? Let me explain what happens … This year was one of the worst. Melanie said she's telling her mother that I swore in class. And Justin? Justin had to be rushed to the nurse's office for oxygen. Quite frankly, Mr. Dahl, I'm trying to have a nice reading hour, and you're ruining it!"

I cried when Katie, who was to be a tree in the class musical, reminded Mr. Done why he does a musical with 90 third graders every year. I was touched when Phil took French lessons and learned all over again how really hard it is to be a student. And I'm still laughing at his passionate, but tragic love affair with the laminating machine. 

So, thank you Mr. Done, for teaching me about being a teacher and a student. I'll carry you with me on my next substituting assignment, laughing all the way.

Tell me about your favorite teacher or what made you laugh in Phil Done's book by clicking here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Help, My Son is Morphing into an Avatar — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

There is something familiar about the figure slouched in the office chair, face aglow in the eerie light of the monitor. I can still see traces of that sweet little boy who used to talk my ear off, but it's hard to recognize him, since I only ever see him in profile anymore, and his earphones tether him to his computer. There is an occasional deep-voiced giggle over the latest Dane Cook video, but otherwise just the quiet, rhythmic tap dance of keyboard and mouse clicks.

I know I'm not the only mother who fears losing her teenage son to screens, but I'm kept awake at night with visions of him actually falling into his monitor and becoming an avatar. If I look closely, I swear I can see the edges of his face turning into thick dark lines, while his visage flattens into two dimensions in Web-ready colors. The sad thing is, I think this is a fate he would welcome.

My son, now 17, was born 16 weeks prematurely. While he is doing great given his desperate prognosis at birth, he struggles with ADD, a short-term memory deficit, delayed social skills and a few other learning disabilities. It's ironic to me that a child who has difficulty concentrating can become utterly engrossed in the artificial world of video games, but this is a common scenario. According to Larry Silver, MD, video games hold particular appeal to kids and teens with ADD: "A child who's bothered by distractibilty in the real world may be capable of intense focus, or hyperfocus, while playing," says Silver. "For children who struggle with social skills, or lack the skills to play team sports, these games entertain and level the playing field. Computer games are emotionally safe."

That's my son in a nutshell. So, what's a mom to do? We recognized early on that technology was this particular child's friend. With poor graphomotor skills, he needs the computer to communicate his thoughts. His handwriting is large and difficult to read and we have discovered over the years that he actually produces more writing, both in terms of quantity and quality, when he types. With poor organizational skills, the capacity to email work back and forth between home and school has greatly improved his ability to complete assignments and turn work in on time.

But it is his poor executive functioning abilities, those areas of the brain that allow you to monitor yourself in goal-directed behavior, that stymie our efforts to help him use the computer to its greatest advantage while setting reasonable limits on screen time. We've tried everything:

We moved his computer into a public space in our house. It used to be in his bedroom and we never saw him. He'd hole up there, with the door closed and lights out, clicking away all hours of the day and night. Moving his computer into the dining room has allowed us to monitor the time he spends online, see exactly what he is doing and get his attention when we need him to do something else.

We have tried timers over the years for a variety of purposes, with little or no success. The best timers are programmable ones, where we set his computer with a password that only allows him access for certain times during the day. This works fairly well, since there is no arguing about "five more minutes" or "wait until I get to the next level," but with a high schooler who has legitimate school-related computer needs, the passwords can get in the way in a busy household. We are working on a system that will allow him access to some Websites all the time, while limiting access to other sites except during proscribed hours.
  • We have tried to use screens as a carrot, rather than always chasing them with a stick. This, too, has had limited success with a child who has no sense of time and no goal-setting abilities. The first consequence is always loss of screen time; the first reward is always extra screen time. This is the only reward or punishment that has any meaning for him.
  • Screen time is measured in aggregate: computer plus video games plus television equals your total allotment of screen time. It used to be that we would shut him down on one screen and he would simply move on to another.
  • No handhelds allowed. It has been nearly impossible to monitor and limit this child's screen time when he is plugged in to a wall socket. I cannot even imagine how difficult it would be to get his attention if he was allowed to carry a mini-screen around with him all the time.
  • We have provided plenty of opportunities for him to interact with other human beings, including an agonizing year of Cub Scouts, several successful years of sleep-away summer camp, day camps, swimming lessons, music lessons and lots of family activities. It is almost always a struggle to get him to participate, but he almost always has a good time when he does. We've learned not to ask him if he wants to do something — we just tell him what he is going to do.
After all the stress, tears, punishments and rewards, my question is this: should we be limiting his screen time at all? What is the benefit of setting screen limits at this stage in his life? As long as he gets his homework done and helps out when asked, is it important to continue to restrict the time he spends at the computer? True, if left to his own devices he would probably always choose "virtual" over "reality", but when we insist, he does participate in other activities.

Chances are that any work he pursues in life will involve computers. While it's true that he does play a lot of video games, he also uses his computer for a wide variety of purposes. For example, he recently joined a graphic arts chat forum. This is the kind of social networking he never would have done in the "real" world, even though there is probably a graphic arts club at his high school. To join would require finding out where and when the meetings were held, signing up, remembering to go, and putting himself into a difficult social situation. It just wouldn't happen.

He also subscribes to several news feeds and, consequently, is pretty up on current events. He reads (and I believe sometimes even writes) fan fiction. Why is it any more valid for him to read newspapers or books than online news sources and fiction Websites?

Here are my moral dilemmas: Why should I limit his computer time to, say, an hour a day when I certainly spend more time than that on my computer? If I am constantly forcing him to do something else — anything else — besides computers, will he ever really enjoy those things? Can you, or should you, force someone into social situations that do not appeal to him?

Why should I limit his computer time when I don't limit his twin sister? This is a particularly difficult question for me, as she, too, spends a lot of time online, multitasking away at a lighting pace — IM-ing with six or eight of her closest friends, downloading music, researching her history paper, creating graphic collages and shopping for new boots — all at the same time. But, and this is a big but, she has a big life away from her computer, and he does not. There is also the fact that she spends little or no time playing video games, and that somehow seems to make her time online better or more productive. When I look at that in the clear light of day, I can see the double standard.

Finally, this teenage boy has two younger brothers who have just as much interest in gaming as he does. I have to be careful with any precedent I set, for I will have to live with the consequences of that decision for many years to come.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't busy being a computer cop, she also writes about Two Kinds of People, as well as about pets on The Animal Store Blog.

Photo credit: "Slaves" by Cleopapu via