Change of Heart



The call came on my cell phone as I headed home on my morning walk, visions of a relaxing cup of coffee in my head. It was my husband, en route to downtown Chicago to drop off my daughter at a summer basketball camp.

The camp was Hubby’s idea, and I argued that it was not worth fighting rush hour traffic for five days just to send her there. My husband insisted that he would do all the driving and I would not be the least bit inconvenienced.

So when he called my cell this morning and asked with fake innocence what my plans were for the day, I knew it was trouble. Sure enough, my daughter’s contact lens had ripped, and he was asking me to drive downtown to bring her a new lens.

“No way!” was my response. “I’m not driving all the way downtown.”

After I hung up, I immediately felt guilty imagining my daughter spending the day doing drills and scrimmages with only one contact in her eye. So of course I called my husband back.

Now, my husband has different ring tones for different people who call. He thinks it’s funny that the tone announcing my calls is a loud fog horn, basically trumpeting, “Mayday! Mayday! It’s my wife!” (Hilarious, I know.) So when I called back, he told me my daughter had heard the tone and said, “Maybe Mom has had a change of heart.” Indeed.

I was full of righteous indignation as I got in my car and headed into rush hour traffic. But as I drove, I realized that I needed to ditch the attitude and be grateful I was there to help my child. I don’t give my kids everything they want, by any means. But if they need my help, I’m there, no matter how tired, stressed, or inconvenienced I feel.

Over the years I have lost many hours of sleep staying up with a sick child. I have missed events I had looked forward to because one of my children needed me at home. Forgotten lunches or homework papers dropped off at school, “just one more” book read at bedtime, boo-boos kissed and bandaged, monsters banished from closets and under beds: it’s all in a day’s work for a mother.

My daughter was relieved and happy to see me (and just to see, period) about 45 minutes later. My only regret is that I did not acquiesce to her request with more kindness and grace in the first place. Let’s hope my change of heart lasts until the next time someone I love needs me to open it.

Who Says Boys Are Easy?



Since I became a parent, I have heard a truism that has bothered me a lot. When people discuss the difference between raising boys and raising girls, they often say, “Oh, boys are easy. Girls are the ones with all the drama.”

This statement bothers me for a couple of reasons. The first is that it flies in the face of my own experience and that of many of my friends.

When they were little, my boys’ constant level of energy often left me exhausted. While my daughter could sit through high tea with  barely a peep, my sons made a trip to the mall or the grocery store seem a Herculean feat. As they grew up, my boys gave me many more sleepless nights than did my girls.

Adolescent boys’ tendency to take risks often puts them in harm’s way – or on the wrong side of the law. I have spent too much time in emergency rooms due to this tendency with my own boys. This questionable judgment, accompanied by a social milieu that rewards boys for being tough and even defiant, makes raising boys stressful.

The second reason I resent the adage that boys are easy is that it reinforces stereotypes of both sexes. Implying that girls are full of “drama” minimizes the very real emotional turmoil of growing up. It suggests that female relationships are all fraught with back-stabbing, gossip, and excessive emotion. At the same time, it implies that boys have no rich emotional life. They are just easy-going, “whatever” types of guys, and nothing really bothers them.

Such stereotypes do a disservice to the emotional lives of both boys and girls. My sons and my daughters all care deeply about their personal relationships. They strive to be there for their friends and family members. And at the same time, they can be hurt by exclusion or unreciprocated love.

Let’s stop assuming that boys are “easy” and girls “hard” to parent. Instead, let’s give all our children the emotional support that will allow them to be themselves and grow up to be happy, healthy adults.

It Takes a (Virtual) Village



Behavior on social media sites has been getting a lot of scrutiny lately. Commentators are understandably disturbed by the many uncivil exchanges and downright bullying that can occur when people are allowed to speak their minds under the cover of anonymity.

Yet I have also found that sites such as Facebook can be a helpful tool for families. For instance, my son’s college has a parents’ Facebook page, on which members post queries about everything from dorm assignments to meal allowances to the availability of campus tutors. Whenever a parent asks for help on this page, there are dozens of answers from other interested and concerned parents. Families will ask for doctor or dining recommendations, off-campus apartment suggestions, and even prayers when an ailing or upset child is keeping them up nights. The college Facebook page has become a great way for parents to share information and ideas, and just to support each other during a difficult transition in their own and their children’s lives.

There are other internet sites that provide parents with advice, encouragement, and support. Some are forums such as The Parenting Spot. Others, such as Scary Mommy, inject a needed dose of humor into the all-too-serious business of raising children. And the relative anonymity of the sites, while it opens comment threads to abuse, also allows parents to share their struggles without worrying about what their friends and neighbors might think.

As a mother, I have often felt alone trying to deal with some of the challenges of raising my kids. Whether it was a medical challenge, a discipline issue, or a problem at school, I felt as if I were the only one facing such struggles. That is one of the problems with our intensely private culture with its emphasis on the nuclear family and the exclusion of outsiders in our day-to-day decisions.

When my husband and I were in China having adopted our youngest daughter there, we were approached on the street by a group of strange women who seemed to be chastising us about our baby. Our guide explained that the women were telling us, “Take off her socks. The baby is too hot!” We were a bit taken aback, as in the United States such unsolicited advice would be anathema. Not so in China, where children are considered everyone’s treasure and everyone’s business.

Reflecting on it later, I had to admit that I liked the idea of an entire community looking out for my child. I remember with fondness growing up with all the moms on my block, who had absolute authority to discipline me but at the same time the absolute conviction to help me should I ever be in need.

In our hands off society, maybe it will take a virtual village to help us raise our children to be happy, healthy, and safe.

Life in the Middle



One of my favorite TV comedies is The Middle. It’s about family life in the fictional Midwestern town of Orson, Indiana. The opening credits feature a vast cornfield and the caw of a crow, the stereotypical image people on the Edges might have about middle America.

But life here in the Middle can be amazingly sweet. Recently I have been enjoying a bit of solitude in my home town with my husband and daughter away and my teenage son preoccupied with teenage things. So I have had some time to enjoy and reflect upon the good things about life in a Midwestern town.

One of those things is quiet. Unless you live in a big city such as Chicago, there is ample space to find peace and quiet. On a twilight walk this week, I reveled in the peace. There were no other people out walking and very few cars cruising the suburban streets. I could hear birds and cicadas singing in the trees. I could smell the flowering jasmine and inhale the serenity of a mild summer evening.

Another wonderful thing we usually have in abundance in the Midwest is rain. Whether a steady nurturing rain on an overcast day or the wind-tossed torrent of a summer storm, the sound and smell of rain is something I really enjoy. And the benefits are everywhere to see. On the vast plains the corn grows higher than my head. Here in the suburbs, the trees, bushes, grass, and flowers all flourish. Not long ago I was in California listening to residents bemoan the terrible drought. Drought is a fairly common condition out West, but not here in the Middle.

Aside from these natural phenomena, there are social benefits of living in the Middle. Midwesterners are unaffectedly friendly and helpful. Neighbors watch out for each other, and even strangers are happy to help with directions or lend a hand. When we first moved back to the Midwest, I felt a sense of warmth and delight in quickly getting to know dozens of people living in my town. Everywhere I went, it seemed, there was a friendly face or two.

There is just something down to earth about Middle America. The trappings of wealth don’t seem quite as important here. Midwesterners pride themselves on hard work and a certain bravery in the face of the sometimes harsh climate. A road trip in the Midwest might take you past covered bridges, farm stands, grazing cattle, and even quirky attractions such as a miniature version of Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

Middle America may not be the chicest or most fashion forward part of the country. But we enjoy the change of seasons, the taste of freshly picked sweet corn, cottages on the lake, catching fireflies, and Big 10 football.

People from other parts of the country like to make fun of our flat Midwestern twang. But chances are if you hear it, it’s going to be some humble soul saying, “Welcome. We’re happy to have you.”


The Password Is . . .



When I was a kid, one of my favorite game shows was “Password.” In the game, partners would face each other. The announcer would quietly intone, “The password is” for the audience’s ears only. Then one of the pair would use single word clues trying to get their partner to guess the password as quickly as possible.

Nowadays, the sight of the word password fills me with dread. It tells me I am going to have to dredge up some relatively meaningless collection of letters, numbers, and symbols in order to access something electronic.

I used to have a fairly small number of uses for a password, and I’m embarrassed to say that I always used the same one, cyber security be damned. I just couldn’t count on remembering such random items. Ironically, I can remember phone numbers with uncanny accuracy. I even know my kids’ current and former high school ID numbers, as well as my drivers license number, and even the account and routing numbers on my checking account.

But passwords have me stymied. First of all, sites started adding requirements for their passwords, such as case sensitivity and the need for both numbers and letters, sometimes even symbols. So my passwords have become much more complicated, and I can’t remember which I used for which login.

I also have a much bigger list of them, but I have a hard time finding a secure place to keep them. Thus when confronted by the need to log in to something, I have to search for my password. I can’t count how many times I have had to click, “Forgot my password,” at a login site in order to have the password retrieved or reset. I always feel like a bad student who wasn’t paying attention in class.

The need for privacy and security in our electronic world is very real and important. With online banking and bill payments, student grades, health records, and other sensitive information, it’s imperative that our accounts remain for our eyes only. And God forbid someone should be able to access my Facebook Timeline!

I just wish there were an easier alternative to the user name/password combination, such as voice recognition, fingerprints, or DNA testing of my hair. Anything but asking me to remember those pesky passwords.

Can Dogs Fly?



I have noticed a trend in air travel that gives me some concern: the prevalence of dogs accompanying passengers on flights. On recent flights there have been at least two or three such animals on the plane with us as we traveled. Why the increase?

Most people realize that service animals, such as for a blind or otherwise physically disabled passenger, are allowed in places that most animals are not, such as restaurants, stores, and public transportation. The assistance the dog gives is obvious and therefore unquestioned.

Recently, however, there has been an upsurge in people claiming their dogs as Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), which airlines are required by law to permit free of charge on flights. Normally a passenger wanting to bring a dog or cat on a flight would need to pay upwards of $100 extra and keep the animal crated at all times on the plane. ESAs, however, may sit at a passenger’s feet or even in a lap.

I have to wonder how many people who claim the need for their service dog really just want to have their pets with them. Airlines vary in the amount of documentation needed to permit someone to bring an animal on board in this capacity. In many cases, airlines simply rely on customers’ verbal assurances that they need the comfort of their dog.

Such a system is ripe for abuse. How hard would it be to get a doctor to write a note insisting you required an ESA? How tempting would it be to save a little cash or have Fido nearby instead of left at home or stuck in the cargo hold? And many people have intense anxiety about flying. If they all brought animals on the plane to ease their anxiety, we would have a menagerie on board.

Other passengers’ rights also need to be considered. Not everyone loves dogs, notwithstanding how ubiquitous cute animal pictures are online. And more seriously, many people have severe allergies to animal dander. I have read numerous accounts of people having serious asthmatic attacks on planes due to the presence of a dog or cat. Isn’t a pet allergy a disability too?

I realize that you can’t tell by looking at someone if he or she has a mental illness or other psychological disorder. But on a recent flight, the woman in front of me with two “service dogs” seemed pretty self-possessed, drinking wine and chatting amiably with her seat mates. The dogs were not wearing service dog harnesses either, which apparently is not required of ESAs.

I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon, but I predict a backlash against people bringing animals on airplanes. That backlash may hurt people with real disabilities who absolutely need their service dogs by their sides. (Service dogs, by the way, are not pets, and strangers are not allowed to pet or engage with them while they are working.)

The FAA and the airlines need to develop more stringent rules about bringing animals on board planes. It will require a balance between the legitimate rights and needs of all passengers, lest the airlines “go to the dogs.”

Giving the Old Colleges a Try



The college tour has become a staple of middle and upper middle class family life in America. As soon as Junior hits puberty, parents plan their spring and summer vacations around a tour of colleges to which their child might apply.

My family has been no exception. During their junior and senior years of high school, my older daughter and son had the chance to spend some quality time with Dad on the college trail, going as far as Maine and North Carolina in their quest for the perfect college.

I remember my own college exploration some mm-mm-mm-mm years ago. It consisted of filling out the application to the University of Illinois and waiting. The U of I was and continues to be the finest public university in the Land of Lincoln. (Sorry, Redbirds, Salukis, and Huskies.) I was lucky to get in and had a wonderful education.

These days it seems kids have so many more choices and opportunities to go to school in far away states or even overseas. My oldest studied in North Carolina, and my second-born is currently studying in Texas. (At least I hope he’s studying!)

Now it’s our rising senior’s turn to find his dream school, and I got to go along for the ride. We took a trip to California this week to goggle at the campuses of UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and USC. We also looked in on a beautiful, small, quiet Catholic college called University of San Diego. (A mom can dream, can’t she?) Instead of studying at a place in the middle of corn fields (my college experience), these California students have the ocean as their backdrop and the bustling city of L.A. as a playground. They can take classes such as Sailing and Surfing or prescreen new movies in a Films class.

As we cruised the surroundings of UC Santa Barbara, I wondered just how students find the will power to buckle down and actually study. Some live in houses or apartments facing the Pacific Ocean. Even the dorms have ocean views. There will be no huddling in winter coats and walking to class against a brutal Midwestern wind here.

Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn’t going to college involve a certain amount of suffering and deprivation? Shouldn’t bleary-eyed students be walking around like zombies with mountains of books in their arms?

I guess I’m glad my son wants to spread his wings and meet kids from other parts of the country and the world. Living in California might seem idyllic, but it’s an awfully long way from home. If California becomes the setting for my boy’s college experience, at least I’ll have a nice place to visit on parents’ weekend.

I have had such a wonderful week spending time with just one of my children, something I have seldom had with this third-born child. We laughed and dined and talked about the future. He regaled me with funny stories about his friends. I shared some stories from my own college days.

All in all, I recommend going on the college tour circuit with your teen. It’s a great bonding experience and a way to get a glimpse into their dreams and their future.

On My Best Behavior



This weekend we hosted 14 of my daughter’s nearest and dearest college friends at our lake house for the Fourth of July. The wine and beer flowed, and it seemed there was a constant need to grocery shop, eat, and do dishes.

You might expect a mom to get a little cranky with all the noise and cooking and cleaning involved. But I was on my best behavior (with the exception of a small tantrum I directed at my husband in the presence of one of the friends).

Ordinarily, I tend to be a bit short-tempered on a weekend trip. Between the traveling on clogged highways and the tasks of opening up the house and getting supplies, I can get out of sorts. But this weekend, I was determined to show my guests a good time.

It’s funny how your attitude shifts when you have people outside your immediate family in the mix. One of the reasons for this may be the fun of tasks shared. Guests usually offer to help, and my daughter’s friends were no exception. So we chatted and bantered as we prepared salads, cooked, and washed dishes.

Another reason for being on your best behavior with company is that your actions, words, and attitudes are being seen through new or different eyes. There is a natural tendency to hide flaws such as a bad temper or general grouchiness. I wanted to appear relaxed, happy, warm, and generous, so those were the qualities I projected during the weekend.

The happy result was that my good manners and good will spilled over to my family members, especially my younger children. It seems that acting the part may actually make a person feel different inside.

I’m not perfect and won’t always be the soul of peace and warmth in my day to day interactions with my family. But this past weekend made me realize that I can cultivate those traits I want others to see in me and make them more a part of who I truly am.

Red Flags



My old friends may have a bad high school flashback when they read this statement: “The symbol is not the thing.”

S.I. Hayakawa’s seminal text Language in Thought and Action was required reading for many students. I remember struggling through this book on semantics and the ways in which humans use symbols to signify abstract meanings.

I have been thinking about the Hayakawa quote recently as America debates the question of removing the Confederate flag from public display.

On the one hand, flags are merely symbols. They represent geographical entities, such as cities, states, and nations. In the case of the Confederate flag, it represents a would be nation from a specific time in U.S. history. Hoisting it does not resurrect that time in history when states in the South seceded from the Union any more than raising the Stars and Stripes perpetuates the existence of the United States of America.

Yet flags and other symbols have potent meaning for people, and despite the dangers of conflating the symbol with the thing,  we must pay heed to the emotions surrounding these symbols.

Flag burning is a common tool of protest against a government or regime. During the Vietnam War era, the sight of a U.S. flag set afire by protesters inflamed the hearts of many Americans. Americans go to great length to respect our flag: pledging allegiance to it, not letting it touch the ground, even singing our national anthem, an homage to Old Glory itself.

The flag of the Confederacy, on the other hand, may stir up pride in some white Southerners, but more often it is associated with a culture whose very existence depended upon the enslavement of black Africans. As such, the Confederate flag is a painful reminder of the racism that did not disappear once the South was defeated. Flying it in a state capital seems like celebrating and approving of that racism.

Just as in past blog posts, I have spoken out against Native American logos and mascots, I believe that the Confederate flag should be relegated to history, not put on display with pride. Those who use these emblems and symbols may not all be racists, but the effect upon racial minorities in America is dehumanizing.

Let’s make no mistake. Taking down the Confederate flag will not solve the problem of racism in America any more than burning the U.S. flag would destroy our great country. But as a potent symbol, its removal would go a long way toward reaffirming our belief  “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What a fitting way to celebrate our upcoming Independence Day.