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Archive for December, 2009

Nutmeg was plenty angry with us when, just weeks after her high school graduation in 2002, iDaddy and I sold the house she grew up in and moved to New York City.  Not only did we sell the house, but we sold most of the things in it.  We were already in New York when the estates-sale coordinator we had hired put prices on all the furniture and tschosckes we’d had to leave behind, and I made the mistake of asking Nutmeg to go back to the house one more time (she was house-sitting for strangers in the neighborhood, since she had to stay in the area for a summer job before she headed off to college).  I think that was the moment that made her angriest — seeing price tags hanging from the purple sofa she had lounged in, and from the bowls and wall hangings and Central American sculptures that had decorated our kitchen and living room, turning the whole thing into one big, nostalgic flea market.  It was seven years ago, and I think she’s only now beginning to forgive us.

I was reminded of all this reading today’s column in The New York Times by the wonderful Michelle Slatalla, whose experiences as a mother of three growing daughters (ages 12, 18, and 20) always speak to me, and usually make me laugh.  Slatalla, it seems, recently decided to downsize, to sell the house where the three girls grew up (but where they lived for only 7 years, compared to the 16 years that Nutmeg and Meta had lived in our house, a full complement of girlhood in practically one place).  Two of the three girls were in college, and Slatalla felt like she and her husband and youngest child were sort of rattling around in their big old house.  The older girls weren’t happy about losing the old homestead, any more than Nutmeg was — and in Slatalla’s case, they were only moving two blocks, not two hundred miles.

I fretted, seven years ago, when our girls were 18 and 22, whether it was too soon for iDaddy and me to leave the family house, with its big front porch where we had watched the girls playing on the front lawn, and the big back yard where each of them had been bat mitzvahed, and the big kitchen table that had been the scene of many happy family dinners and more than a few melodramatic ones.  Was it too soon to close up shop and recreate a family home in a 2-1/2 bedroom apartment in Manhattan?  Slatalla had similar concerns, even though in her case she was still going to give each girl a bedroom, and a backyard — and, essentially, exactly the same neighborhood.

They say it’s a natural part of becoming an adult, when you start to realize — gradually — that the house where you grew up isn’t where you live anymore. You begin to understand that the phrase “childhood home” actually means the place where people tried their best to prepare you for your own life.

Some children take it gracefully. Others, like Jonathan Franzen, write thinly veiled autobiographical novels excoriating their parents.

“Do me a favor,” I pleaded, “don’t read ‘The Corrections’ until you give the new house a chance.”

But I was starting to worry. Was I being selfish? Would it scar my children for life if I disturbed the shrines of their bedrooms, transporting bulletin boards full of snapshots and little plaster handprints from kindergarten and desiccated flower bouquets from past proms to a new location two blocks away?

Now, seven years later, I know that it wasn’t such a big deal to close the door on the girls’ childhoods when I did.  It was a tiny bit premature for Nutmeg, I admit — it would have been kinder if we’d waited at least until her first Thanksgiving home from college — but there’s not really any need for bedroom shrines when your children are in their twenties.  In fact, speaking as someone whose own bedroom remained intact until my mother finally sold the house I grew up in when I was 51 years old, sometimes the shrine thing can go on for much, much too long.  I’m hoping that Slatalla and her husband, as well as iDaddy and I, have set good examples for our growing daughters,  showing them that parents go on, with their own yearnings and changes, even after the active-parenting stage of our lives has ended.

It’s the eve of 2010.  Time for all sorts of lessons in new beginnings.

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Kids and parents never really know what’s in one another’s heads, at least not when they’re arguing.  That’s the conclusion of a study summarized by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, co-authors of NurtureShock, in their Newsweek-hosted blog of the same name.  In a post from a couple of days ago, they describe the work of Alan Sillars of the University of Montana, who videotaped 50 family groupings (generally, Mother, Father, and adolescent son or daughter) as each of them had a 15-minute conversation about a contentious topic of their choice.  Later, the participants were ushered into separate rooms, a la the soundproof booth of The Newlywed Game, and asked to watch the videotape and say what they thought their spouse or child had been thinking at particular points in the discussion.

They were all, parents and kids alike, wrong an average of 76 percent of the time.

“The kids readily admitted that they were often lost as to what their parents were thinking,” write Bronson and Merryman.   “The parents, on the other hand, were certain that they knew what was on the others’ minds.”
This kind of disconnect is not limited to parents of teenagers.  I suspect that if you asked me to describe what was going on in Nutmeg’s or Meta’s head when we’re having a conversation — especially a potentially fractious one, about career goals or plans for motherhood or somebody’s weight — I might think I could.  But if I thought harder, and especially if I put myself into the role of daughter and asked myself whether my own mother has any idea what I’m really thinking about when we talk, I’d have to admit that I’m probably wrong about 76 percent of the time.
What to do with this kind of knowledge?  Surely we can’t stop talking.  But we just as surely can’t try to explain ourselves to one another.  Transparency isn’t the goal here; I doubt that I actually want to know EXACTLY what Nutmeg and Meta are thinking when we talk, any more than they want me to know.  What, then, IS the goal?
I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with that old saw of keeping the lines of communication open.  As long as parents and kids are talking to each other, even if they’re not exactly telling each other everything (or interpreting everything correctly, due to inability really to intuit what’s on the other’s mind), there’s a relationship there.  Sillars found, in the same study that showed parents and kids to be talking past each other, that everyone in the family felt like they basically got along.  The kids gave their fathers an average score of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5; they gave their mothers an average score of 4.1  If iDaddy and I stay in the 4 range on our daughters’ radar, I think I’d consider that a pretty successful number.

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In a lighthearted column in today’s Washington Post, eternal style scribe Sally Quinn writes about the travails of holiday entertaining.  There’s dotty drunk Aunt Anna and boozy Daddy in a silent spat with Mother; there are all those aggressively crappy gifts sent by step-great-grandma, too.  Despite the infernal lyrics of the annoying popular songs, Quinn writes, it’s NOT “the most wonderful time of the year”; it’s the most miserable.  “Why?” she writes.   “Because we all have dysfunctional families.”

Now when anyone starts describing something universal as abnormal, my ears prick up.  All families are dysfunctional?  Really?  Then how do you define functional, exactly?  I prefer to think of families as idiosyncratic, quirky, difficult — but all of this is related to how they DO manage to function, not to how they don’t.

I think what’s really going on — or what is often going on — is that family relations tend to work pretty well when children are young, but less so when children become adults.  It’s too easy to fall into the trap of reverting to the roles we adopted in our families of origin — the good daughter, the mischievous son, the worried mother, the distracted father.  It’s a little unseemly to keep acting out, at the holiday table, the same little dramas that took place 30 years earlier at the kitchen table.  We all do it, of course.  In fact, even though iDaddy and I don’t even live anymore in the same town where our daughters were raised — we sold the house where they grew up and moved 250 miles north almost the day Nutmeg graduated from high school — we still actually have the same kitchen table (though now it’s crammed into one corner of the living room/dining room/family room/home office — sort of like the all-purpose room of the girls’ elementary schools or, as Ray Romano put it on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” our little Manhattan apartment’s cafegymetorium).  And when Nutmeg and Meta are both at home — is it even fair to call this “home” when neither of them has actually lived here?  I’ll let that question slide for now — we assume the position, each of us sitting at the same place in the table where we used to sit when we had dinner at this same table in our big kitchen in Maryland. 

In assuming the position, we assume the role, too: Meta talks more than Nutmeg, Nutmeg  interrupts and gets Meta irritated, I jump in and try to smoothe ruffled feathers and only make things worse, iDaddy tunes out when the girls and I seem to be heading into territory that’s a little awkwardly female.  With Wilco now also at the table, the gender balance has shifted ever so slightly, and since he’s just a son-in-law with no Family of Origin baggage, we all tend to behave a little bit better in his presence.  But give us a little while, and he’ll probably be drawn into the swirl of our supposedly dysfunctional family — which I prefer to think of as just plain family, flawed and fractious and 100% typical.

Merry Christmas.

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a “bad parenting” fad?

Looks like it’s that time of year, when newspapers and magazines around the country (those of them that are still standing in these  calamitous times) are getting ready to publish their “best of” lists.  I saw the first of what I assume will be a bunch of them this afternoon, at the Washington Post’s “On Parenting” blog by Brian Reid.  One item in particular caught my eye — item number 2, the apparent trendiness this year of “bad parenting.”

Can this be true?  Can it really be that, as Reid puts it, it’s become “cool for parents to brag about how they weren’t crazy helicopter parents who . . . care deeply about whether a piano recital goes perfectly”?  Reid links to Ayelet Waldman’s new book Bad Mother, and to the cutesie blogging “community” truuconfessions, as evidence of this emerging trend.

I don’t know, though.  If you really think you’ve made a mistake with your kids, is it really possible to be this blase about it?  If you confess to your mistakes, do you mean this to be bragging or expiation?   Is the notion of bad parenting different for someone in the throes of day-to-day molding of their little ones than it is for me, many years post-molding?

I’ve been wondering this not only because of On Parenting’s Top Five List, but because this kind of reflection seems to be part of what happens when your kids grow up and the active phase of parenting is over.  Now that my girls are fully-formed twenty-somethings, whatever I did wrong or right is kind of beside the point.

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Chanukah starts next Friday night, and the holiday reminds me of all the decisions iDaddy and I had to make about religion as the girls grew up.  He and I were both born Jewish, but secular, and we’re both atheists who don’t care much about organized religion.  But I could never bring myself to celebrate Christmas, or to fail to do at least something on traditional Jewish holidays — hosting seders on Passover (even though we were usually the only Jews at the table); giving the girls bat mitzvahs (though in our backyard, with an antiwar-protestor-turned-Judaicist in chage, and in Nutmeg’s case the ceremony was rained out and was actually held in the basement of the Presbyterian church on the corner); lighting the Chanukah menorah.  The girls knew they were missing something around Christmastime — why are there four weeks’ worth of Christmas cartoons on TV and only one about Chanukah? Meta asked when she was four or five — and so I guess I bent over backward to make Chanukah seem especially cool.  I didn’t want them to think that being Jewish meant that you had to miss out on  something; I wanted to think it was something better than being Christian.  So when they were growing up, I tried to make Chanukah seem better than Christmas — which meant getting 8 presents, one for each nights.  (See how lucky you are, kids?)

When the girls grew up, though, it got harder for me to come up with 8 great presents.  I tried when they were in college — I remember sending a Care package or two filled with 8 presents, to be opened one night at a time, when Chanukah arrived out of synch with Christmas vacation and had to be spent far from home — but recently I’ve just given up.  Eight presents that they’ll love?  I can’t even come close to getting one present they won’t want to return.  I feel like I kind of know their taste, and even their clothing sizes, but I so often make mistakes.  Plus, I hate to shop.

iDaddy and I have basically settled on giving the girls gigantic checks for Chanukah.  Really, gigantic — $2,500 each last year, and that’s what we’re aiming for this year, too.  Which opens a whole ‘nother can of worms.  Our ultimate goal is to keep giving them money that they can keep saving until a time when they really need it — for business school, for instance, or maybe for a down payment on a house.  This seems only fair to iDaddy and me.  It’s the way my parents did it; we never could have managed to buy our first house, or our second house, without their help with the down payment, and they kept giving us money whenever they could, buying savings bonds, buying our kids savings bonds, and on and on.  The issue of my mother giving us money got awkward sometimes — I was never a gracious recipient, I felt it as an affront and a hidden comment on how we couldn’t afford the things we wanted without their help.  But my mother would have at the ready a Yiddish adage that would always shut me up: “I’d rather give it to you with a warm hand than with a cold one.”

Is that enough, this urge to give our children what we can when they’re young and need it most — and, not inconsequentially, while we’re still alive?  And am I giving too much to my daughters now?  Will they feel it as a loving gesture, or as an affront?  Meta recently said that she thought she was going to have to stop therapy — even though she had finally found a therapist she loved who she thought was helping her — because she realized that her insurance wouldn’t cover it and she couldn’t really afford it.  I asked her permission, which she gave me, to pay for the therapy for her, and then I wrote her a check to cover a year’s worth of weekly visits.  iDaddy said I overreacted, and maybe I did.  But how odd that I reacted in precisely the way that would have driven me crazy had my mother done the same thing.  The big difference, I keep telling myself, is that I asked first if it was OK to give Meta the money.  Is that really enough?

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Nutmeg announced recently — even before the layoff in November from her journalism job — that she is thinking of applying to business school.  The Harvard Business School, in particular — this idea dawned on her after a trip to Cambridge, where she lived for a year after college and I guess would like to return to.  (The Sunsplash cocktails at Temple Bar would be enough of a draw for me.)

“Do you want to break yo momma’s heart?” Meta said to her when she heard about Nutmeg’s plan.  We all laughed, and I remembered the one thing I had said when they were young and people asked me what I envisioned for my daughters when they grew up.  “I don’t care what they become,” I used to say.  “If they want to become artists or writers or actresses or whatever else they love, that’s fine with me.  I have no dreams of them growing up to be doctors or lawyers.  In fact, the only thing that would bother me is if they grew up to be businesswomen.”

This was meant as kind of a joke, but I was also a little bit serious: I didn’t want them to become corporate cogs, or successful capitalists, or workaholics, or drudges.  I didn’t like the idea of them spending the bulk of their working hours in offices, doing stuff I couldn’t really comprehend.

That’s why it was so cool when both girls decided to become journalists — it was a kind of homage to me, I felt, and it was also the kind of life I could get my mind around.  We could collaborate on each other’s pieces — I’m a great editor, and they’re great editors themselves — and talk shop.  We do all this: we edit each other’s articles, we offer each other career advice, we talk shop.

So if Nutmeg goes to business school now, she’ll develop a whole new vocabulary, a whole new way of looking at the world, a whole new skill set that I know nothing about.  (She’ll even throw around terms like “skill set,” which she’s already started to do.)  Which is all as it should be.  But Meta was more right than she realized — Nutmeg with an M.B.A. may indeed break a tiny piece of her momma’s heart.

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Three days after the Thanksgiving weekend, and I’m finally able to think about how it all went.  Meta and Wilco were here from late Tuesday night until Sunday evening — a long visit home, something always a challenge for a young couple visiting her parents, but a special challenge when the mother-daughter pair is me and Meta, compounded by the close quarters of our smallish Manhattan apartment.

It went really well, I think, except for the occasional blow-up when I felt again, as I had felt through so much of Meta’s adolescence, as if I could do nothing right.  I bit my tongue a lot, walked on eggshells, did all those cliche mothering tricks I used to do for so long — tricks I’d gotten out of the habit of because Meta and I usually get along so well these days.   I asked iDaddy if he agreed that Meta got testier when her sister showed up on Thursday morning — Nutmeg lives an hour away in Brooklyn, but she was camping out in the tiny maid’s room until Saturday as though she was spending Thanksgiving home from a place far, far away.  When Nutmeg is around, I suspect my demeanor changes, and I suspect that Meta notices it and bristles.  It’s easier for me with Nutmeg, who doesn’t snap at me.  No tongue-biting needed, no eggshell-walking.  Which might actually make things between Meta and me even more prickly.

iDaddy hadn’t really noticed any difference when Nutmeg was home, and after the weekend I came up with another hypothesis that might explain the testiness.   Not long ago,  Meta and I wrote tandem essays together about mother-daughter relationships, in particular how mothers and daughters talk about body image issues.  Just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, the article was published in a national women’s magazine, so it was still fresh in our minds.  And Meta aggressively did not want to talk about it.  It was weird, actually, since writing the essays –about how mothers talk about weight with their daughters, and in particular how I had communicated my own poor body image to Meta and basically screwed her up for a while — had been both difficult and cathartic.  I actually had thought that the writing itself changed something, signified some kind of growth we had both done, some mutual acceptance we had both finally achieved.  I actually had loved working on the essays, as painful as it was, and had been hoping that maybe some day Meta and I could expand it into a book about mother-daughter relationships.

But whatever understanding we had gained by writing things down seemed about to be lost because Meta was so resistant to talking out loud about either the article or the subject matter.  She was very clear, early in her visit, that the article was absolutely off limits — we were not to talk about the the response to the article, nor the photos, the fan mail, the blog posts that linked to it, and most of all we were not to discuss the content of the article itself.   I’m not sure why, exactly.  All I know is that from the moment Meta walked in to our apartment, she was on guard.

By Sunday, however, with Nutmeg gone and Meta and Wilco able to hang around for one more lovely lazy day, we all  finally relaxed.  I think Meta realized that I was not going to violate her dictum, both spoken and unspoken, to lay off talking about the article.  I think I had earned her trust, and in the end we were able to just hang out like a bunch of adults with relatively little baggage.  Never NO baggage — that’s just not the way it is with Meta and me — but enough to fit in, say, a hobo bag.  At one time, the two of us needed a steamer trunk.

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