What My Graveyard of DIY Projects Taught Me About Parenting

Behold the graveyard of DIY projects.

There is a box of papers, colorful scissors with various edges, a hodgepodge of stickers, stamps and decals residing on a shelf in my office closet.  Last year I discarded a two-inch stack of recipes torn from magazines promising mouth-watering delicacies.  A clear, plastic, zippered pouch that contains two spools of soft, chocolatey brown yarn and a partially completed scarf resting on needles has followed us to two homes and remains under my bed.

I had never given much thought to the DIY culture until I became a mom and then I couldn’t escape it.  Personalized Valentine’s Day cards, hand-stitched Halloween costumes, laboured over meals, ornately designed snack foods, and play dates requiring more scheduling and production than a low-budget highschool musical seemed to be the norm. I mean, WTF ever happened to just knocking on someone’s door and playing with a Skip-it in the yard while eating FunDip?  And then just when I thought I had it somewhat figured out, Pinterest came along and upped the game.

I spent years on that hamster wheel trying to do it all and do it “right”, but the years have brought me three busy boys, and an acceptance that “good enough” is really good enough.  I learned to identify, appreciate and accept my limitations.

This year I did make my son’s skeleton costume for Halloween but it was the process more than the end product that proved to be “pin-worthy”.  My son and I worked together to turn my son’s vision into reality.  He learned the importance of communication and teamwork.  I learned there are no perfect skeletons but there are happy kids.


Being honest with myself is difficult.  I used to feel that doing everything for myself was somehow a reflection of my worth as a mother.  If the Valentine’s Day cards were perfect, than somehow this meant that I was a good mother, a kind mother, a patient mother, the mother that we are all supposed to be.  Never mind that it was a grueling process with me snatching the scissors from my boy’s hand while muttering with exasperation, “I’ll do it”.  Never mind that while eating a store-bought birthday cake at little Jimmy’s party or surveying the parade of made in China Buzz Light Year costumes knocking on my door, it never once crossed my mind that these mothers were “bad” mothers, lazy mothers or not the mothers that we are all supposed to be.

I thought that people were judging but it was really me who was doing the judging.

There is a part of me that does long for DIY projects.  I am nostalgic for the lost arts that generations before were commonplace.  I am amazed when my husband fixes things around the house without consulting You Tube.  It’s his confidence that I admire as much as the skill.  Now when I find myself lost in a chosen project, it’s the sense of calm and the absence of expectations that I find as rewarding as the final project.

My experience with parenting and DIY projects is very similar.  At first I was lured by the glossy images promising picture perfection but it’s the fails: the shattered glass, the burnt dough, the botched hemline – that’s when the real learning occurs.  It’s often the most basic projects, the ones that are the least glamorous or fun, that most need mastering and bring about the greatest sense of accomplishment.


Finding Time to Volunteer

help-686323_640I’ve recently become a stay-at-home-parent (and blogger – see my stuff here!). Briefly, I’ve taken a one-year leave of absence from my paid work as a bank lawyer to spend more time with my children, and re-set the rhythm of our family life. On my blog I talk about  lots of personal things, and argue that the world needs to see stay-at-home work as valuable work, and that we should not bifurcate our view of the parenting function in a gendered way.

In one of my first posts, I responded to an item from a SAHM that got a lot of attention in the mommy blog world when she wrote about why she regretted her choices. One of her issues was that she got “sucked into” a world of volunteering. Though I kept my original response levelheaded, what I really thought was “WTH? If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it!” I linked this piece on how to say no to volunteering and all the issues that go along with saying yes or no. It’s an excellent article, worth reading anytime and especially in the context of the current 4Mothers1blog series.

As I was getting ready to leave paid work for my leave, almost everyone asked me “What are you going to do?” Though I found the question a bit frustrating – hello, didn’t I just say I’m going to be a stay-at-home-parent? – I know what they meant.

What in the world would I do with all that extra time? Ha. I am finding out that, as anyone who’s spent more than one day as a Stay at Home Parent (SAHP) knows, there is actually not a whole lot of extra time. Taking care of the daily activities and to-do’s of running a household take hours every day, and not in one nice chunk that can be carved out. That care is fragmented throughout the day, leaving few opportunities for non-SAHP projects.

And that’s my main point – if you have time, find something you love (as Nathalie wrote earlier in this space this week) and volunteer to your heart’s content.

But first, make sure you have the time! If you plunge ahead and accept too much, you will soon feel squeezed and resentful.

One of the reasons I decided to take a leave of absence and re-set my life with my children was that I found my priorities slipping, every day. The kids could always be “later” while I sent one last email or unloaded the dishwasher. I firmly resolved, before leaving paid work, that I would not take up any new challenges, learning opportunities, projects or personal activities during the year I would be on leave. My work would be my kids and family, and I knew that if I embarked on, say, learning Mandarin, it would quickly take up my time and my energy that I’d dedicated to SAHPing.

I believe being a SAHP means developing a new set of skills, or at least re-deploying old skills in a new way. Transitioning into that will take some time, like developing a new set of muscles. To have the time, the energy for that, means not taking on new items – at least not immediately. Much as I’d like to finally finish decorating my house – new rug here, non-IKEA dresser there – projects like that are firmly on the back burner for now.

Still, I have an exception, and it’s for a perfect volunteering opportunity. I’ve long attended the kids’ school council meetings. For the upcoming school year, I’ll run as co-chair. Before committing, I’ve done my homework – how much time is involved, what’s the nature of the work, how many meetings, what are the typical questions and problems we don’t see in the public meetings? I’m ready. Also, I think this volunteering opportunity dovetails perfectly with my goal for a LOA and SAHPing. I’m looking forward to being involved with my kids’ lives and school especially. I see this as a great way to integrate more into the school culture and community, something I’ve been missing since my oldest started junior kindergarten. For this, I will make time.

Volunteering will fulfill you in so many ways – it’s a way to exercise your brain differently, a way to give back to your community, a way to build your resume if you’re thinking of going back to paid work someday, a way to network, a way to make new friends…if you have the time!

Truths We’re Told

I’m not sure I can add much to what Nathalie and Beth-Anne have already so eloquently said on this topic.   I will let the other mothers’ writing stand on its own, but I share the sentiment already expressed that entitlement is an unattractive quality, in both children and adults.

I want my boys to grow up to be modest, unassuming, deservedly proud of what they accomplish, without any inflated sense of self-worth, confident but not cocky, and above all, I want them to be grateful for the opportunities they’ve had, and to show that gratitude appropriately. And because I was raised to show appropriate gratitude, I have to give the credit to those people whose words helped shape me, and whose values I want to pass along to my own children:

From my grandfather: “Don’t show off who you are.” In other words, be modest. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself. You gain nothing from it. (Clearly, my grandfather could not have anticipated You Tube, but I digress…)

From my mom’s cousin: “When you’re famous, don’t forget who you come from”, an admonition that also took the form of, “Don’t think we’ll be afraid to knock you down a peg if you get too high and mighty”. I may not be famous, but when I’ve caught myself thinking too highly of myself, these words come back to me.

From my Dad: “You’ve got to make luck to be lucky”. What people think of as “luck” is really the pay-off of hard work.

From my Mom: “You can do anything you set your mind to! Well….except ballet. Honestly Marcelle, you’re not going to be a prima ballerina. You’re too tall and your feet don’t arch.  You don’t have to like it, but it’s the way it is. You DO need to practice your violin ….” Not everyone can do everything. Find what you CAN do, and do it the best you can.

Is there a home-grown truth about how to be that you carry with you? I often wonder which of my frequent platitudes will stay with my own children long after I’m no longer there to utter them.  Whatever it is, I hope they take it to heart.

Tying the Apron Strings Tightly

My kids are over-protected. I’m over-protective. And only slightly apologetic about it.

There. I’ve said it. And I won’t lie: there’s a part of me that winces when I tell you that we often allow our kids to play outside of our house with other kids, more or less unsupervised. What if someone reads this blog post, figures out where we live, and then lies in wait for my children to walk out the door, and then goes and snatches one of them? I’ve spent my whole life practicing the memorization of licence plate numbers just in case someone I love is ever abducted in a car, and I count my complete inability – to this day – to remember a licence plate as a portend of doom.

What could I have to do that could be more important than watching over them? Some days, I wonder how I let them out the door in the morning. What if they fall down those impossibly wide old stairs at school? They’re nine and seven, and still I worry about them eating a snack at recess: what if one of them chokes? Will their friends have the presence of mind to call a teacher? Do any of their buddies know the Heimlich manoever?

It’s crazy. And I know it’s crazy. And I keep my crazy mostly under wraps, hidden from view, because I know my crazy does my children no good. In every other part of their lives, I believe in allowing them to explore, test, and ultimately, to fail.  I do try to push them out of their (my?) comfort zones, but they’re not going anywhere; my nine year old won’t even walk half a block to mail a letter without me.

I’m not entirely sad about that.

I’ve tried to figure out where this irrational over-protectiveness comes from, but the only comforting thought I have is that there’s strength in numbers. I’m not the only one locking the doors constantly. Being overprotective has become a sign of “good” parenting, like feeding your children only organic veggies and demanding copies of their grade’s curriculum so that you can monitor your child’s daily progress toward their Expected Learning Outcomes.

We monitor our children’s every move during the day, but that doesn’t stop each and every one of us from lamenting the loss of freedom that we had when we were children. We live in cities that are considerably safer than when we were little. So what in the hell are we afraid of?

Nuclear proliferation. Watergate. Distrust of institutions. Energy Crisis. Hostage takings. Hijackings. Three Mile Island. Bhopal.

Ah yes. I was a child of the 1970s and 1980s. Half of our parents were divorced (a statistic, by the way, that hasn’t held true since the early 1980s, but I digress). We were educated by ABC After-school Specials, with episodes entitled things like “My Dad Lives in a Hotel” and “Which Mother is Mine?” In public school, I had a friend who was expected to be out of the house until dinner. Not that she had anywhere to go; it was just that her mom worked all day, and she wanted some quiet time when she got home. So when I went to their house, we played outside until six or seven at night. In January.

Can you imagine that now?

I read somewhere that Generation X went through its formative years as the least-parented generation in history (which may be news to the generations of children who were sent out to work before they were ten, but you get my point).  And while I feel obliged to include here that I was not under-parented myself (just because my parents were divorced doesn’t mean I didn’t spend a lot of time with my grandparents, thank you), I knew a whole lot of kids who were. And I bet every last one of them is trying to keep their kids safe from whatever boogeyman of uncertainty and insecurity haunted them in their childhoods.

So as a card-carrying member of Generation X, you’d think I’d just get myself into therapy – like everyone else – and get on with it. Why not try and push my kids to be more independent? But then I think of Sharin Morningstar Keenan, abducted from a playground when she was nine, in 1983. She was younger than me, but familiar; I remember, when she went missing, seeing her father on television, pleading for her return, and realizing that I recognized him: Sharin had her music lesson right after me on Saturday mornings. I still think of her, remember myself lying in my orange-wallpapered bedroom, listening to the news on the radio, and being so afraid: not for my own safety — I was streetproofed beyond measure — but because such evil existed in the world and I was helpless to do anything about it. I know, now, that most abductions of children are by people they know — most abuse is perpetrated by people that children know and trust — but that’s not the evil that frightened me most.

And I think that I’ve been given no greater gift than my children. If the kids of my generation turned out to be okay, so often cut loose, then I have to hope that our children will turn out all right for having been held onto a bit tighter than may be strictly necessary.

Happy, happier, happiest.

There’s nothing wrong with being happy.

The United States has entrenched the concept of happiness — or the unalienable right to it — in their Declaration of Independence. The Asian country of Bhutan measures their national prosperity not in mere economic terms, but by calculating and monitoring Gross National Happiness.

If happiness is such a laudable goal, and such an unalienable right, then why do I feel like happiness is something I’m supposed to be actively working on, at the same time as I’m making sure my nails are done, my hips are svelte, my children perfect, and my house immaculate? Why do I feel guilty on days when I’m unreservedly, undeniably unhappy?

In other words, when did happiness — or more accurately, being seen to be pursuing happiness above all –become a status symbol? Why is simply being happy, or striving to live a meaningful life, of which happiness is a by-product, not enough?

This line from one of the articles Natalie posted, by Todd Kashdan of Psychology Today resonates with me:

Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.

Scientists have found that the active pursuit of happiness, as an end to itself, makes people unhappy. Does this not seem true of the people you know? I know a few people who appear to have identified a “happiness deficit” in their lives. They are the ones carting The Happiness Project about in their purses. They’re keeping checklists. They actively remind themselves to “let go” of stressful thoughts, of negative energy. In so doing, they’ve become so concerned about the achievement of the goal of being happier, that they constantly seem miserable.

Who can be happy, when you’re in a state of perpetual competition with your emotions?

If you have to ask whether you’ve achieved happiness, you probably don’t know what you’re looking for.  And I don’t think that Gretchen Rubin and her ilk mean to make the pursuit of happiness a commodity to be acquired. But you know, as much as there’s nothing wrong with being happy, there’s also nothing wrong with being unhappy, either.  Grump that I am, I don’t need to be told otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness?

I seem to find advice on how to be happy everywhere I turn.  Magazines have entire monthly columns dedicated to attaining it and numerous blogs tout the pursuit of it.

For me, the pressure to be happy can be crushing and there are times, more than I would care to admit, that “be happy” is just one more line item for supermom to check off.  There it looms on the list: above “nutritious short order cook” and below “sultry sexpot”.

Being a mother has proved to be my life riddle.  One that I am struggling to figure out.

How is it that I feel so utterly lonely but at the same time crave solitude?

Why do I want time apart from my kids but once I am alone, I count the hours to when they return?

At the end of the day, I beat myself up and wonder what is that I accomplished today?  What use did I make of my two university degrees?

At the end of the day, I am amazed by the magnitude of what I have contributed to our society: three small boys, who are learning to be thoughtful, compassionate members of the community.

There are days when I am deliriously happy and days that I feel as though I am clawing my way out of a black hole.

Today I didn’t feel happiness.  I felt claustrophobic, torn apart, pushed beyond the limit of exhaustion.  As I write this, the boys are tucked into bed and not a minute too soon.  My patience now sags like a hyper extended elastic band.

Hard days come with the mothering territory and when I feel less than sure, it’s not to the experts that I turn.  I seek solace from those elbow to elbow with me in the trenches and Glennon Melton’s Don’t Carpe Diem tops my list.

Am I happy every day?  No.  Am I happy most days?  Yes, and that’s good enough for me.

Life’s not a glossy magazine, folks.  If it were, I’d have better hair.


photo credit: http://www.symbolset.org


Heard around the house this week:

“Mommy, can I go on the computer?”

“Mommy, when can I go on the computer?”

“Mommy, can I go on the computer when I’ve finished my homework?”

“Mommy! Daniel got half an hour on the computer and he’s hogging it and won’t let me have my turn!”

“Mommy, can I get a membership for Legoland?”

“Mommy, can I get a “Hero Up” account? I’ll pay for it out of my allowance money!”

“Mommy, I practiced piano for fifteen minutes and finished my homework. Can I go on the computer now?”

“Mommy, how come he gets to go on the computer? I never get to go on the computer!”

“Mommy, can I go on the computer now?” (pause)

“Ok, how about now?” (longer pause).

“Now, right?”

“Mommy, if I stand here watching my brother, does it count as computer time?”

“That’s not fair! What do you mean, I can’t go on the computer because it’s too late? We just got home! It’s not my fault I had to eat dinner.”

“Mommy, if I finish my homework early, can I go on the computer tomorrow?”

Is it any wonder I’m ready to chuck this laptop out the window? This hunk of silicon and plastic on which I’m typing this blog post rules my life and the lives of my children. To say they’re obsessed is an understatement. There is nothing of greater importance, it would seem, than convincing their parents that it is crucial that they spend every possible waking minute playing a computer game. Or watching their brother play a game.

Or talking about a computer game. Or reading books about games they can play online.

Or, for that matter, playing chess. Or singing, playing ball hockey, playing piano, having playdates with friends, playing with lego, and very occasionally, watching TV.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? From my perspective, it would be foolish of us to act as if that the computer won’t be a defining force in their lives. They’ll use them in school, in the workplace, and from day-to-day, so there’s no use pretending otherwise. But when you have two boys whose lives revolve around the computer, it feels unhealthy to indulge their desire to spend every waking moment playing games, especially because we know they also have other interests that they want (and need) to indulge, too.

Do you limit the amount of time your children use the computer? I admit, I don’t know what the right amount of time on the computer is. Whatever it is, it always feels like it should be less than the amount of time that they’ve most recently tried to convince us is reasonable. We have placed limits on their computer time: no computer during the week, unless you’ve completed your homework, at which point you’re allowed a half-hour on a school night. One hour per day on the weekends, to be broken up into half-hour segments. But even within those (seemingly clear) rules, there seems room for debate, pleading, begging, and outright rebellion, which leads us to be obstinate and punitive (“Ask me just ONE more time if you can use that computer, and you lose computer time for the weekend!”).

Their love for the computer is wearing me out.

So, suggestions are welcomed. I’ve heard of programs that you can install on the computer, which time how long the user has been at the computer and then automatically shut it off when a certain preset usage has been reached. Maybe that’s the answer. But in the meantime, if you see a laptop go flying, it’s probably because someone around here asked to use the computer one too many times.

Not for Sissies

Katrina Onstad’s article about Kate Middleton is more snide than is customary for her.  I go straight to her column, now in the Style section of The Globe & Mail, every Saturday morning.  I’m looking for intelligence, wit and an uncanny ability to capture a trend or a moment in history with simple but precise gestures.  She usually delivers.

This column was a bit techy.  Why pick on Kate and William for not wanting to clean their toilets?  Surely that makes them more like us, no?

As for the whole princess in waiting game, it’s not for sissies.  It would be my worst nightmare to be in Kate’s shoes, cameras constantly trained on her every move, the tragedy of Diana’s life in the spotlight hanging over her.

However, as much as I take issue with her tone, and as much as I am certain that Kate Middleton has never an idle moment, I agree with Onstad’s premise: it is important for women not to opt out of the work force.  

Putting that argument in the context of the mommy wars is specious; Kate does not (yet) have children, so she is not opting out of the work force in order to be at home with children.  It was a mistake to put her decision in the context of so loaded, and in many ways, so fabricated a battle.  Mommy wars make good headlines, but it’s an argument whose battle lines I dont’ find fruitful.   Being at home with children is damn hard work, and it serves nobody’s purpose to denigrate that work by calling it an opt-out.

The fact that Kate Middleton is not a mother, however, is why it is even more important to stress the impact of her opting out of paid employment.  She has the time to devote to a career or a calling beyond being the woman on the arm of the future king.

Even though I don’t think this discussion belonged in the context of the mommy wars, the argument that Onstad cites resonates deeply with me:

Philosopher Linda Hirshman took [stay-at-home, opt-out mothers] on in her 2006 “manifesto” Get to Work. Her argument was only partially about how work can provide “human flourishing” or personal fulfillment (the usual reasons mothers work or don’t, after finances). Her real assertion was that a culture where women aren’t working sets back women as a group, reinforcing a dangerous social imbalance. Women remain financial dependents and unpaid labourers, while men earn cash and respect. Hirshman scorned “choice feminism” as a watery cop-out: Women unquestioningly supporting each other’s choices isn’t feminism; women working together for better social conditions for all women is.

I have three children, and I felt Onstad’s cry of “Get a job!” hit home with me.  One of the biggest shocks of motherhood for me was how crippling the sense of isolation and worthlessness can be.  I got to the end of one day last winter, and I miserably noted that my biggest challenge of the day, in fact of the entire week, was the simple logistics of getting three kids through snow to and from school.  I so desperately wanted a pile of papers to mark, lectures to prepare, an article to write: the kind of work I trained to do, the kind of work that feeds my soul and gives me an abiding sense of worth.   A pile of laundry, dinner to prepare and three kids to wrestle into pajamas was not the meal my soul needed.  Being at work is what I need to feel whole, and I am a better mother and citizen for it. 

As it happens, the work I do now is neither at the university nor being home full-time with the kids.  I am writing, working towards a book of essays on motherhood, and waging a daily battle with myself to keep at it because it pays exactly nothing.  (“Get a job!”)  And when I get into the depths of despair about not earning, I remember this post from Carrie Snyder, about the woes of the writer:

I continue to long for a practical profession. The friends I met up with last night are women close to me in age, whose children are now off to school, and who have chosen such interesting and practical directions for their post-intense-mothering lives. Midwife. Nurse. Youth counsellor. Hands on, directly affecting the lives of others in need, being physically and emotionally present, interacting, connecting, empathizing. With real people. In real time. In my work, I do an enormous amount of emotional empathizing, but with makebelieve characters. Gah! I am laughing and shaking my head as I write that. It seems like such a bizarre way to connect with other humans.

Kevin’s response to my morning whine of “I should be doing something practical!” was “strongly disagree.” He suggested I should take my attitude and join Stephen Harper’s conservatives and stop funding the arts and go live in a world where everyone wears grey overalls and does nothing but work work work. You can see why I married him.

I am equally moved by Onstad’s cry to get off my ass and get a job (you will note that she does not keep a blog and gets paid for all the words she writes) as I am by Carrie’s angst about a practical profession and by Kevin’s point that paid work work work is not all that makes a person valuable or a society livable.  I don’t want to wear grey overalls, but I do want the perks of the workplace: full citizenship in adult society, a paycheque, work that is all mine.  The kind of work that feeds my soul, whether it is teaching for money or writing for nothing, is a privilege, and I think it is every woman’s duty to give herself the gift of meaningful work.  For some that is being at home with children.  For others, it is participating in the work force.  For others still, it is unpaid or underpaid creative work.  But it really, really shouldn’t be to appear on the arm of a man.

Kate Middleton, Get A Job! (And Our Giveaway Winner!)

Never one to shy away from stating her opinions, Globe and Mail columnist Katrina Onstad, wrote on Saturday February 5, 2011 that princess-to-be, Kate Middleton should get a job.

Onstad argues that Middleton and Michelle Obama, along with “opt-outers” (a minority group of educated, privileged women who choose to play a supportive role to their high-powered spouse) are ultimately depriving themselves not only of compensation but contribution.

Needless to say, these are fighting words that have long fueled the battle between stay-at-home moms and working mothers.  The 4mothers have a lot to say in response to Onstad’s comments and will be the focus of February’s At Issue.

photo credit: http://www.people.com

Giveaway Winner:

We also want to announce our movie date night giveaway winner is Melanie!  Congratulations Melanie – we hope you will have a great belated Valentine’s Day evening at the movies.