Achieving Balance

Seven Years To A Dog

Goodbye, suburbia. Hello, brick ranch in the city!

Goodbye, suburbia. Hello, brick ranch in the city!

You know the time discrepancy they say exists between human years and dog years? I feel that same time disparity in my life right now. I am the dog in this scenario, and I have lived a year in the past month. In four short weeks, we looked at homes, found one, and closed on it. On Monday, we took possession of a 1960s-era, boxy, brick ranch in the city. We will spend the next six months renovating it, transforming it into our personal space in preparation for our final severance from suburbia next spring. This morning I find myself sitting in our future dining room writing at a plastic table while awaiting the internet installer. After only a few days, the house feels like home. I already know how the sun moves through the rooms and the ambient light changes throughout the day. I recognize the quiet rumble of the heater when it springs to life with its echoes of distant thunder. The backyard is my oasis, a private park with mature trees gently shading the ideal spot for an adirondack chair and a good book. Denver is my old friend. Everything is close here, intimate and accessible. And, in an introvert’s dream, I can live anonymously in its confines, obscured by the constant buzz of a world hurriedly carrying on without any notice of me.

Still, with all the familiarity around me in my new space, there is upheaval. I find myself in a netherworld, half out of my old life and half into my new existence. The boys are growing up faster than I imagined they could. Joe starts high school next year and he is now tall enough that I can watch his green eyes up close as he processes that he will soon be taller than me. He shows no signs of regret in leaving our current home and growing up; he relishes the dream of a basement space where he can revel unabated in teenage solitude. The new house gives him room to slide out of my hands and into his independent life as he was always meant to do, but the implications of this transition are simultaneously amazing and horrifying. There are days when all I want to do is sit on the couch swilling midday wine and wallowing in episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine on PBS Kids to mourn his growth. Alas, no amount of wishing to go back has materialized a time machine in which I could take that trip.

So I have found other coping mechanisms. I admit I’ve sought refuge in a binge-watching grave of The Office. You know, television is great for creating vacuous space in your head. And it’s a good place to idle while you’re waiting for motivation, but it’s no place to reside permanently. It’s time to bid adieu to things past. I’m working to separate from parts of my existence that were so integral to my being that I feel physically crushed by their emotional loss. I’ve been hobbling along in a Dunder-Mifflin haze for too long trying to avoid noticing those phantom limbs. Now that we’re committed to this new house, though, that time must end. Shit is getting real. It’s time to harness my rapidly spinning mind and use that energy to move, both literally and figuratively.

One way I hope to manage this shift over the next year is by returning to writing. As we inch along making improvements to our new home, I am going to document the physical transformation of our new space here. Along the way, I will work with added ferocity to live in the present (even though the present becomes the past with increasing speed as the boys get older). I’m positive I will discover a thing or two about myself and about my future trajectory as we set ourselves up for this next phase in our lives. Learning new skills, like tiling floors and installing custom closets, could help improve my self-esteem and garner additional confidence. The more I allow myself think about it, the more excited I become to shake off the weight of Michael Scott and see what I will uncover and where I will land. Goodbye, Scranton.

I Stay Home…Get Over It

I have the best job ever.

This is my career. How could it be worthless?

Ever since I made the choice to leave my career and stay home with my sons, I’ve been overwhelmed by my choice. There have been periods of time when I felt like I was nothing more than a butt wiper or a housekeeper or, in darkest times, a slave. Some days it is hard to find the silver lining in my current career. But, no fail, right about the time that I am feeling 100% certain about my decision, some working woman or man asks me what I do. The standard response I get when I tell a career person that I am a stay-at-home mom is a simple, one syllable, “Oh.” Conversation over. Clearly, I have no longer have anything current or intelligent to talk about, and no one wants to hear about kids, so they leave. I am a serial conversation killer. I’m not exactly sure when the decision to expend my energy solely as mother and homemaker vaporized my IQ and decimated my inherent worth as a human being, but it happened. Working people get to ask me ridiculous questions about my personal choice without feeling an iota of impropriety. I wonder how they would feel about it if I questioned the validity of their career choice? Really? You’re a programmer? I’ve heard they’ve taught monkeys to do that.

I was fortunate enough to have a choice to make when I was 32: 1) have a career and no kids, 2) have a career and kids, or 3) have kids and no career. I chose what was behind Door Number Three. When Joe was born, I knew that what I really wanted was as low-stress of a life as I could have. To me, that meant not trying to juggle too many things. Steve worked. We could afford for me not to work. We came to an agreement. He puts money in our bank account. I run the house. We share duties with our sons. Our weekends are free to enjoy because I take care of the busy work during the week. As with any choice, it has both good and bad points. The choice I made means I clean toilets and mop floors like Cinderella because we can’t afford a maid. It also means, however, I can go to yoga during the day when my kids are in school because I am my own boss. Like anyone else’s life, my life is a balancing act to keep things working. But, make no mistake about it, I work. Every day. Seven days a week. I get no paid vacation. No bonuses. No salary. But it’s worth it to me because our four lives are more peaceful because of what I do.

To be fair, I know that the work I do is invisible to those on the outside (unless they catch me at Starbucks having coffee with a friend while they’re on their way to work and suddenly I’m no longer invisible). And this is why people feel free to interpret something they know nothing about. Still, I get tired of answering condescending questions. To that end, today I invented some succinct responses to lessen the agony of being asked them repeatedly:

“When do you think you’ll go back to work?” Never. Work sucks.

“What did you do when you worked?” I was an adult film star.

“What do you do with all your free time when the kids are in school?” Day drink.

“Don’t you get bored?” Oh…when I get bored watching Oprah, I take a nap. Crisis averted.

Really, people. I am doing the right thing for me. I only get one shot with my boys. I have to do my best the first time around because it’s the only time I have. Ask any adult child about their relationship with their parents and you will know this is true. Time with our children goes by fast. I have six years left with my beautiful, deep-thinking, first-born son. It will be over in the blink of an eye. I know I have been fortunate to have a choice, and I know that what is right for me is not necessarily right for others. I don’t begrudge anyone their choice. I simply wish others would believe that there’s more to me than my lack of a paycheck. Right now, I’m somebody’s most important person, and that won’t always be the case. Someday they will no longer need me. I bet I will not be on my death-bed regretting the inordinate amount of time I spent with my sons in their youth. I will only regret acknowledging stupid questions about the smartest choice I ever made.

The Upside of Upchuck

The reason I'm mellowing...these kids have both puked on me.

These cute kids have both puked on me.

There are some good things about getting older, particularly if that getting older occurs along with parenthood. In my advancing years, for example, I’ve discovered that I have quite a bit more perspective now than I had in my 30s before I had children. My Type-A, uptight self has been given many opportunities to learn not to sweat the small stuff. I mean, there’s a lot of perspective to gain when you’ve spent hours agonizing over the perfect outfit to wear to an anniversary party at an upscale restaurant only to have your six-year-old vomit on you in the car just as you pull into the parking lot. That’s the universe’s way of telling you to relax a little and stop fussing over things that don’t matter. The universe has been working overtime to correct my anal-retentive tendencies. My mother told me once that if you pray for something, it’s not given to you. Instead you’re provided the opportunity to earn it. My life is proof that her belief is true.

Tomorrow we’re taking the boys up for the first of five ski lessons we’ve enrolled them in. I’m a little anxious because they’re not as excited about it as we are. For most of my life, I’ve been a Nervous Nelly before a new experience. Once, in college, I drank two shots of vodka before going out for Thai food with a date because I’d never been to a Thai restaurant before and there were so many unknowns I was petrified. (A therapist would make a fortune off of me. I know this.) As I’ve gotten older and lived for years with unpredictable children, though, I’ve found a coping mechanism that won’t end in alcoholism. I play the Worst-Case-Scenario game. For example, take our skiing day tomorrow. There are dozens of things that could go wrong. We could get stuck in a snowstorm. We could forget our skis. A kid could drop one glove off a ski lift. We could arrive late and miss the lessons altogether. One of us could tear an ACL. It’s all possible, but it’s not likely. I’ve learned that worrying about the “what ifs” is a colossal waste of time. If we forget our skis, we’ll rent them. If the drive is horrific, we’ll turn around and head home. If one of us tears an ACL, well….that would suck, but it wouldn’t end the world as we know it. The more I’ve realized how unlikely it is that we’ll reach Death Con 5, the less I trouble myself over the small stuff. Gradually, my Threat Level Red decreased to Orange and now at last to Yellow. I’m making progress. I doubt I’ll ever see Green, but you gotta have goals and green is my favorite color.

No matter what happens with our planned ski adventure tomorrow, I know it will all work out one way or another.  I’m grateful that the universe found a way to offer me practice in the things I need. I once thought I did not want to be a parent. The universe knew better. Now I have two boys who are providing me with a great deal of perspective. Because of them, I’m less of an uptight loon than I used to be. I try new foods (without requiring vodka courage). I visit foreign countries. I’m interested in experiencing new things. And I don’t even lose sleep over any of it. It’s incredible how having a little person vomit on you can change you forever.

Queue George Michael’s 1990 Hit…FREEDOM!

Harry Flufferpants, Esq.

Harry Flufferpants, Esq.

One of the best things that has come from our sons’ beginning at a new school is the stress it’s taken out of my life. For years our boys were struggling to keep up in class, an issue that was never more obvious than when they would pull out their homework. Every night was a battle. Homework that, according to their teachers and reports from friends whose children were in the same class, should have taken no more than an hour or an hour and a half each night took our boys upwards of three hours. There was non-stop whining, pleading, bargaining, and crying, and that’s without even mentioning how hard the boys took it. Five evenings out of the week (because, let’s face it, the weekend’s homework was not worked on slowly over two days but was instead busted out in one heinous rush on Sunday night), there was no peace in our house. Math assignments, book reports, and spelling troubled me more than any other thing in my life, including midlife crisis and the amount of time I had to wait for the next season of Downton Abbey. Those days are gone.

In their place, we have creativity, laughter, and family time. Because the boys work so hard all day at school to overcome their learning disabilities and because the school understands that, our boys currently have a manageable hour’s worth of homework each night…with a little extra time needed when special projects are assigned. And as if the one hour limit didn’t provide me with enough solace, the school also offers a homework club each day after school. For a reasonable fee the boys can stay an hour after school and complete their work in a teacher-supervised classroom with other students. It’s pure genius. When I pick up my boys at 4 pm, they are finished for the evening. We are currently mulling over which outside activities they could do, like music lessons and tae kwon do, because they will at last have the time to partake. I’m giddy simply thinking about it. They are finally getting to experience what life has been like for their friends. I’m excited for them. It’s about time.

In the meantime, our boys have taken their extra time to try new things and exercise their imaginations. Joe has been discovering graphic novels (books with more pictures than words that are perfect for dyslexic kids…get your minds out of the gutter, people) and Luke has been engaged creating the Museum of Cute. He’s using his iPad to print out photos of cute things, like teacup-sized Pomeranian dogs and mini pigs wearing rain boots, and organizing a collection, which he plans to tour our families through in a few weeks on opening night. Tonight there was an explosion of cute when he brought me this picture of a tiny, white Pomeranian with a mustache. The photo is labeled, “My Lawyer, Harry Flufferpants, Esq.” I can’t make this stuff up.

I also can’t seem to get the chorus from George Michael’s 1990 hit Freedom out of my head. Normally, this would be a problem for me, but I’m so relaxed after my new nighttime ritual mug of chamomile tea that I can’t even find the residual daily angst to care. I think my zen just got a bit closer.

A Perfect 97/100

A few weeks ago I watched an internet video made by a young man who spent 10 years traveling around the world on a shoestring budget. In the video, Benny Lewis discusses 10 lessons he’s learned while circumnavigating the globe. While all of the lessons he discussed were relevant to my life, one especially called out to me. In lesson #2, Benny invited me to “be an imperfectionist” because the possibility of failure too often keeps us from trying new things. But, dang it, life is too short to forgo new experiences. The older I get the more I realize how many precious opportunities I’ve squandered by playing it safe and the more I recognize that I’m too old to play it safe any longer.

At 5:55 a.m. Fresh and ready to go

Fresh and ready to go at 6 a.m.

So in keeping Benny’s words in my head this weekend, my hubby and I set out to do something I openly admit I was not entirely sure I could do. Last month I registered us (in a moment of supreme overconfidence) for the COCO Century ride.  (For you non-cyclists, that term implies exactly what it suggests: you complete a 100-mile bicycle ride in one day.) I’d been optimistic originally about our chances to complete this particular ride because it was touted as a “flat” century without the climbs you might expect from a ride in a state with over 50 mountain peaks towering above 14k feet. At least there wouldn’t be any mountain passes on the course. This should be easy peasy. Or at least not brutal, right? After I registered, someone reminded me that no hills means constant pedaling and no opportunities for coasting. Funny how that little detail had slipped my mind.

On the drive down to the hotel we were staying at the night before the ride, hubby and I discussed our lack of preparedness and our intentions for the event. We opened ourselves up to imperfection. We were going to do whatever we could. If we couldn’t finish it, no big deal. At least we would get in a nice ride somewhere new. We were going to embrace the day for whatever it would bring. And we determined to forgive ourselves if we could not complete the full 100 miles. Our best was going to be good enough because our best was all we could offer.

When the starting gun went off at 6, we were off. We were in small-town country filled with friendly, helpful people and a relaxed attitude. We weren’t four miles into the ride before I first suspected we’d missed a sign and made a wrong turn. We were following a few local riders, though, and they seemed to know where they were going so we pedaled on. Sure enough, we eventually crossed paths with the rest of the riders who’d taken the correct route. Oops. We shook it off, fell in line, and joined the herd. Around mile 22, we realized we’d missed the first of eight rest stops with our little detour. At mile 45, we were feeling good and completely skipped the fourth rest stop in favor of keeping up our good pace. Around mile 50, I pointed out to Steve that we hadn’t seen any other riders recently, and at about mile 55 I at last decided to consult the ride map on my iPhone. Lo and behold, we were on the right course. We were, however, going in the wrong direction. We’d missed another turn and where the others had headed east, we’d continued south and consequently missed the fifth rest stop. Oops yet again. We discussed it briefly and decided that backtracking 10 miles was not a reasonable option. We’d just ride the course in reverse. A ride official found us a few minutes later, verified our error, gave us her cell phone number, and supplied us with water for our continued against-the-grain trek.

Our two person century ride

Our two person century ride

We made the best of our two person century ride, cruising another 20 miles through Rocky Ford and Swink before finally landing in La Junta where we decided we would turn around and head down the course the right way back to Ordway with the other riders. At mile 86, though, we noticed we’d missed the final rest stop of the ride. We were 4 for 8 on the sponsor-provided rest stops. Still doggedly determined we stopped at a local farmers market, bought some fresh fruit and some bottled water, and continued on. At about 10 miles before the finish line, we calculated we had 13 miles to go. Oops times three. Our course snafu had wreaked havoc. It was nearing 3 p.m. and the last section of the course was a long and steady, albeit not Colorado difficult, uphill climb. It was about 95 degrees. We’d pedaled for over 7 hours. Although I’d been eating every 10-15 miles, I hadn’t consumed nearly enough calories to cover the 4000-plus calories I had burned, and I was fading fast. At mile 96, I resigned and told Steve I simply could not finish the full 100, as ridiculous as it sounded. I was weak, nauseous, and about to hit full on heat exhaustion. I was disappointed, but I am smart enough to know when to stop pushing myself. And so I rolled across the century finish line with my bike computer at just over 97 miles, 15,840 feet short of the goal.

Rolling in a wee bit short

Rolling in a wee bit short

As a recovering perfectionist, it’s taken me a couple days to process this shortfall. Three miles short is not technically a full century, and there are plenty of people (including an earlier version of myself) who would tell me it doesn’t count. But we did what we set out to do, which was our best. We overcame obstacles and kept on rolling despite setbacks. If we had stayed on course and been able to take advantage of more of the ride-sponsored rest stops for nutrition, we would have completed the last three miles without struggle. It simply did not work out that way. With some time behind me now, I understand that this is exactly the lesson in imperfection that I needed. Do you know how difficult it is to have spent most of your life as a perfectionist and then come within 3% of completion of a goal only to walk away? But I did it and, miraculously, I feel great about my accomplishment. We enjoyed our ride and would do it again, but I don’t even feel the need to repeat it simply to prove I’ve finished. If I do this century again, it will be for fun and not accomplishment. And trust me. That’s progress toward a future filled with more rewarding episodes of imperfection.

The Power of No

Random crop circles in our yard...just for fun

Random crop circles in our yard…just for fun

Some people are born speaking the word “no.” It rolls off their toddler tongues before you can finish your sentence. These are the children who know what they want and plan to get it without negotiations. I was not that child. While I in no way possess a people-pleasing personality, I was raised to be accommodating when at all possible. When I go out of my way for others it’s not because I am deeply thoughtful but because I’ve been taught it’s the right thing to do. As a result of upbringing, I often add just one more item to my already long to-do list because someone asks nicely. Consequently, my life is a non-stop blur of frenetic activity. Whirling dervish? Guilty as charged.

Last night I sat down and took a sobering look at our family calendar for the next 9 days. On March 20th at an unreasonably early hour we will be boarding a plane…destination Kauai. Between now and that moment when we’re checked in at the gate awaiting our boarding call, I have about a gazillion things to do. Yes. It is a first world problem, but it’s my first world problem and so it matters to me just the same. As I went over the calendar and my to-do list on my iPhone last night, hubby caught me shaking my head.

“What’s wrong?” he inquired.

“So much to do between now and the 20th.”

“It will all be fine,” he reassured.

“Oh…I know it will.” I don’t doubt my ability to accomplish things, just my excitement about doing them.

“Aren’t you excited about the trip?” he asked.

“Not really, no. I will be excited when we’re sitting at the gate and not a minute before. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to fit in a well check for Joe and a trip to the vet for Ruby. The next week is packed.”

“You always stress and it always gets done,” he said.

“It always gets done because I always stress and push myself through every last detail,” I retorted.

Today, staring down the barrel of an ungodly busy weekend, I started packing for the boys and I. I dug through last summer’s clothes, which have been stored for their long, Colorado winter’s nap, and put together Hawaii-friendly outfits. I located sunscreen, snorkeling gear, and rash guards. I dragged suitcases up from the basement and began assessing what might fit where. Then, in the midst of this busy-ness, I got an email that added another layer to my stress. It was a request for yet another social visit in our already overbooked weekend. Between hair cuts for all of us, two birthday parties, a social event at the boys’ school, brunch at my mom’s, dinner with our Wine Gang (which we are hosting), and a couple book reports the boys need to have completed before we leave (not to mention packing and preparing our house for the puppy caretaker), I cringed at the idea of attempting to fit in even one more quick thing.

Being unaccustomed to disappointing people, though, I scoured our plans looking for wiggle room for the requested, short get together either Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I weighed the costs of not honoring this request against the stress it would add to an already overbooked weekend. Then, I did something I rarely do. I went against my usual habit. I said no even though it’s very likely that the persons whom I turned down will be hurt by my refusal. But even those of us who strive to be amicable and accommodating have a breaking point.

If there’s one good thing that is coming right along with the sags, bags, spots, and wrinkles of middle age, it’s gumption. I’m no longer under the impression that I have to do things to please people. I understand that there are some people who will never be pleased, no matter what kind of back bend I contort myself into for their benefit.  I’m learning that sometimes it’s not just okay to say no. It’s downright necessary. While I do feel a bit bad for shutting out this latest request, I know it was the right thing to do. This weekend will still be crazy busy, but at least it might prove I’m not insane.

My Kids Aren’t Cheap Circus Ponies

Portrait of our family

Portrait of our family

This past Thursday, prompted by recommendations from not one but two special education professionals, we trekked to Children’s Hospital so Luke and I could visit with a psychologist and determine whether he might (like his brother) have ADHD. Honestly, neither hubby nor myself were 100% convinced that Luke would be diagnosed. We thought that if he perhaps did have some of the markers, his symptoms at this point were mild. But, when we learned that ADHD and dyslexia occur together up to 25% of the time, we decided it was best to cover our bases.

During the course of the hour and a half we spent talking with the psychologist, she asked innumerable questions. Most of them were about Luke, but some were about our family life. When she asked me about how we discipline our boys, the strangest thing happened. I drew a blank. The more I sat there searching for an answer, the more shocked I was to realize that we don’t discipline our boys very often. I couldn’t decide where to go with that realization in terms of answering the psychologist’s question. I decided to come clean.

“This is going to sound strange, but we don’t discipline our sons very often. We set clear, realistic expectations, and our boys most often meet them.”

“Well, when you do have to discipline, what kind of discipline do you use?” she inquired.

“Most often we take things away from them…their iPads and video games, opportunities to play with friends, that sort of thing. But we’ve never done it for more than a day or two. They respond to that type of punishment fairly well and typically avoid having to repeat it,” I told her.

She seemed appeased by my answer and moved onto another question. Quietly, though, I wondered if she thought I was either a) lying to make our boys sound better than they are or b) simply another overindulgent parent with little control over her children. The test came when she asked our boys to sit on the floor across the hallway from her office while she asked me some questions. She told them it would be 10 minutes and that they needed to be quiet. At one point during the interview I started to become uncomfortable because it had been too long and they had been far too quiet. When she finally opened the door, I checked the time. They’d been out there for 20 minutes. I peered my head around the corner to see that Luke was shutting down the Dragonvale app he had been playing on my iPhone and Joe was putting his homework back into its folder. I felt vindicated. My 9 and 11 year old sons had sat alone quietly on the floor in a dull hallway without any adult supervision for upwards of 20 minutes without incident. See. They are good kids, just like I said.

Maybe it’s because our boys struggle so much with their issues that we go easy on them with other things. Their rooms are messy. The number of chores they’re asked to complete is minimal. As they’ve gotten older, we’ve chosen to let go of some things so that they can be kids. Their school work takes such an enormous amount of effort that we cut them slack in other areas; it’s not right when they break down in tears because they’re overwhelmed and miss their friends. We do expect things of them. We expect their best effort on their school work, but not A or B grades. We expect them to be polite, most of the time. We expect them to be kind and to try to get along with others. We expect them to work out their own differences and to recognize their own responsibility in a disagreement. We admonish them if we feel disrespected. In exchange for these things, though, we’ve given them a voice in our house and our trust. We ask their opinions. We let them make choices. And, yes, we pick our battles. We’ve decided that it’s better to give in on the things that don’t really matter so that when we ask them to yield on the things that truly do matter to us we’ll have the backing to gain their easy compliance. They understand that as part of a family sometimes they get what they want. Sometimes they don’t.

I don’t expect that our boys will never need more serious discipline. They’re boys. They’re getting older. They’re going to make bad choices. We all do. When I make mistakes with my sons (which happens far more often than I wish it did), I openly apologize to them. I show remorse. I make amends. I am not the Queen of Do-As-I-Say-Not-As-I-Do. I’m the Duchess of I-Try-To-Set-A-Good-Example. I told our boys the other day that my job is to make sure that they grow up to be the kind of men I still will want to spend time with, the kind I will invite into my home again once they’ve vacated. Discipline is important. My actual job as Mom, though, is to make sure they feel unique, important, and unconditionally loved, and not to ride them like cheap circus ponies. Just don’t tell them I said that. I’ll lose my edge.