Monday, January 30, 2012

Playing Favorites


Do you remember the Teacher’s Pet? The one who could do not wrong, even when she did wrong? The one who sat front and center, sometimes turning around to gloat? The one who found plus signs behind the letter, A, no matter how much or how little time she devoted to the task? Are you thinking about her? How much did you like her? How did she turn out?

Something similar happens in many homes across America. Parents choose a favorite and according to experts, no one is the same thereafter. The ill-favored child often suffers from low self-esteem, the favored child often has an inflated sense of her worth. According to Dr. Phil, the effects of playing favorites are toxic:

When parents focus more love and attention on one child, all the children begin to feel that their parents' behavior is unfair and unpredictable, which creates resentment and uncertainty. It also affects sibling relationships, leading to higher levels of anger and aggressiveness. The less-favored child carries around feelings of not being good enough, wondering, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ This leads to low self-esteem, anger and acting out for attention, even negative attention. The favored child will begin to feel his/her sibling's resentment, and may even begin to hate being treated as the special child. (http://drphil.com/articles/article/530)

As a teacher of thirty-seven years, I too faced the parental dilemma because some kids need something more and others seem to deserve something more of us. I remember three students in an early-morning class. One, whom I will call Jane, was never late, rarely absent, and always prepared. She smiled every day, and she befriended every other student. She even offered to drive out of her way to pick up another student whom I will call Jack. He had no car in spite of the fact that he was the sole support in his household and worked more than a 40-hour week.

Jack’s mother was often let go or quit her job, especially after she learned that her teenaged son could hold one. Rent, health care for his mother and siblings, and food for the table left no money for a car so Jack walked everywhere: 2 miles back and forth to work, 4.2 miles to and from school through any and all weather, wearing only a jacket, the only coat he owned.

Perhaps my star student Jane empathized with Jack because she lived with people to whom she was not related. Her own family, plagued with addictions, drove her into the arms of some good people. She too worked full-time to pay her way, but she did not have to provide for an entire household. She could afford car payments and fuel so she extended the kindness of strangers to embrace Jack, her opposite in disposition. While Jane was sunny, Jack was dour, a misanthrope at the tender age of seventeen.

The third student, whom I’ve named Jill, was even more misanthropic. She fancied herself as some sort of creature of the night. She even had fangs permanently installed on her canine teeth. She wore black, lacked a moral center, and danced with failure almost every day. Toward the end of the school year, she spent an entire paycheck on knives--sharp, deadly knives purchased at a gun show. Her dad with whom she lived took her to the show for her eighteenth birthday. I worried that she would harm herself with them because the Lycan she loved deserted her.

I adored Jane. I admired Jack, and I was afraid for Jill.

Jane was my favorite, but neither Jack nor Jill thought so. Jack knew that I would fight for him as a Mama Grizzly fights for her cubs. I nominated him for a scholarship that came with a car and helped him through the application process. I wrote heartfelt praise for his mind and work habits. (He finished in the top 5 but did not win.)

For Jill, I offered second and third chances. I listened to her wacky, weird worldview, and I looked at all the photos of those knives. I had conversations with her mother and the principal. We threw our life lines to her in particular in the belief that kids at risk need plenty of hands to hold in dark, dangerous times.

For Jane, I offered resources according to her needs, but her needs were few. She had life well in hand and is about to graduate from college. Both Jill and Jack started college. Their progress is slower.

I hope, to some very small degree, the fact that I did not make Jack or Jill feel small when standing next to Jane helped. So parents, be wise. Search for the miracle within each child, then let that miracle live in the sun.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Exquisite Nature of Parenting


A former student posted a comment on Facebook about older women advising young mothers to appreciate every stage and age of parenting. According to my FB friend, the older generation says it all goes by so fast.

And it does, but what exactly is it? Surely, those young mothers must wonder what it is that they may miss because it goes by so quickly. As one of those older women, I have a few answers for them.

One is the feel of a tiny hand wrapping itself around one adult finger. The touch speaks of trust and faith and comfort found in bonding. Few touches in all of life are so tender and so strong simultaneously.

Another part of it not to miss or take for granted is a child’s wide-eyed amazement at the world unfolding before him. When he figures out that those appendages move at his will, his eyes widen as he tests his hypothesis over and over. Little girls do the same, especially when they happen upon the natural law of gravity. They hold aloft a single Cheerio, an entire bowl of spaghetti, or a pacifier, then drop it to the floor again and again and again. We older women--and men--will admit that we too tired of the game quickly, that we sometimes put away the tested item and made our faces stern. But we’d like you to do better. We’d like you to know that these happy accidents in the lives of every child fade too soon and that children, like adults, soon take for granted all that this world is. We’d like you to see with fresh eyes how miraculous this world is, how marvelous children are. We’d like you to savor this life as you live it, not in hindsight or reflection, but in the moment every day.

A third aspect of it is the human capacity to persevere and triumph. A child could give up and refuse to crawl, stand or walk. Many adults do when they find themselves in unfamiliar territory, facing daunting, uphill battles, but adults can fall back upon the advice of others and upon prior experience with failure and success. Adults have experience and the Internet to guide them. Children do not. They have only us from whom they take their cues. If we show them there is no way out but through, that effort and determination can make a huge difference in outcomes, that it will be alright, then we empower children and learn again the exquisite strengths within the human being. We also teach ourselves the fine art of empathy, something that often seems in short supply in this world.

A fourth aspect is the peace and love found in quiet moments of togetherness. Does the dust on bookshelves matter more than another game of Chutes and Ladders? Will your relationship with your children grow and prosper because you maintained the shiniest floors in the neighborhood?

I watch parents bring children into grocery stores and big box caverns, the child resisting from the first attempts to place him or her in the child safety seat of the shopping cart. The toddler’s day has been just as long as yours, filled with cares and woes sufficient unto his age. He’s tired. He wants to be held instead of staring at your chest as you push the cart and compare products. He fusses. He shrieks. Everyone grows tense. Often the parent snaps, proving himself utterly human and short of his own expectations.

I want to interfere, to tell the parent that with very few exceptions, the chores and errands should wait. I want to shout, “Go home. Play Hungry, Hungry Hippo or Break the Ice even if you detest both. You won’t be sorry tomorrow, next week, or in twenty years.”

Gurus, old folks, and highly paid talk-show hosts advise us to live in the moment, the here and now. They urge us to appreciate what we have when we have it, to count our blessings, to be grateful for what we have, not to live in a state of want. They tell us to save for the future, and I’m here to say, the best future is in a bank of memories that include tender moments, remembered discoveries, hardships overcome together, and shared joy because it all does go by far too quickly. Cherish it when you have it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Taking Care


Last week, I mentioned that Mother drove her father-in-law to another state where he would undergo tests to determine if his cancers could be treated differently than they were being treated in his hometown. That was just one of many times that Mother took care of others. Indeed what woman doesn’t take care of others?

In fact, according to a Fact Sheet available about Womenshealth.gov, most caregivers are women: In any given year, about 44 million adults (or 21% of the adult population) will provide unpaid care for disabled and elderly family members who are 18 years of age or older. Sixty-one percent of those 44 million adults are women.

The Fact Sheet goes on to list the toll paid for taking care of others. Caregivers:

                Are more likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety
                Are more likely to have a long-term medical problem, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis
                Have higher levels of stress hormones
                Spend more days sick with an infectious disease
                Have a weaker immune response to the influenza, or flu, vaccine
                Have slower wound healing
                Have higher levels of obesity

They may even be at higher risk for mental decline, including problems with memory and paying attention.

For these reasons, caregivers, including and especially those wives and family members who care for injured and traumatized veterans, deserve our admiration as well as support groups and social programs. Consider the case of RyAnne Noss, a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, married to a soldier who served eight tours of duty before sustaining a TBI—traumatic brain injury. Scott Noss, the fit and brave and active man that RyAnne married, no longer exists except somewhere inside a body that requires constant care. Many women would have walked away. RyAnne has not. She put her career, ambitions, and desires on hold to care for her Scott.

She is not alone. Eric Edmundson’s parents, Ed and Beth, and Eric’s wife, Stephanie, have sacrificed their financial security and ransomed their futures to restore Eric to the best possible state he can attain. Ivonne Thompson is another like RyAnne. Each of these individuals, so eloquently and movingly portrayed on “NOW,” a PBS program November 20, 2009, has put aside personal agendas. Each has elected to serve by standing for a loved one and waiting for miracles in the form of a single laugh, a step taken, a glance of recognition. Each care-giver bears the yoke—although I could never conceive of it as mild—because each is in the service of something greater: a life. And each proves his courage and conviction every day. (The great sorrow associated with Alzheimer's is that no miracles await; the disease, to date, has no cure or good outcome although it can be held at bay with medication.)

Home for Our Troops has also taken care of Scott and Eric. They have provided homes that are wheelchair accessible and equipped with technology that allows family to care for them in spite of their weight and challenges. Such programs, privately funded, are wonderful, and we should donate both dollars and time to help, but should the caregivers and those in need have to wait several years for their homes? Shouldn’t our nation support these families who have made great sacrifices by making it possible for them to live as productive and independent a life as possible from the moment they are injured to the moment when they leave the medical care and/or branch of service to which they have sworn duty?

I believe we should. I believe that we should rebuild soldiers and their families, collecting necessary tax dollars to do so. We put them in harm’s way; we should help them stay safe and strong. Our nation’s defense rests upon their shoulders as much as it does upon drones, bombs, and Humvees. Let us never forget!

To learn more about RyAnne Noss, Ed and Beth Edmundson, Stephanie Edmundson, and Ivonne Thompson, as well as the soldiers who inspired them, visit http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/547/transcript.html where you can read the transcript of “Who’s Helping Our Wounded Vets?” a program featuring Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojoso and produced by Abigail Leonard. I believe that you may even want to buy a DVD of this program because the story will inspire you.  You will also be inspired by the work of Homes for Our Troops at www.homesforourtroops.org. You will feel proud that there are such selfless, loving Americans living among us and caring for the most severely wounded soldiers who found their courage for us.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Calling All Bluebirds, Adorable Mice, and Fairy Godmothers



Once, when I asked to attend a second week of camp, my mother, who had budgeted for just one, suggested that I work to earn the money. Only thirteen, I was too young to find work outside the home, and babysitting did not promise enough return to pay for camp, but Mother, as always, had a plan. She told her friends that I would be taking in ironing, and her friends were only too eager to provide their husbands’ shirts and boxers. Ick!

One man liked his collars stiffly starched, but the sleeves and body only lightly starched. Another liked two to three rounds of starch on every square inch, collar, sleeve and body. A third did not care for starch much at all so a light spritz was necessary to meet his demands.

Mother taught me to spray each shirt with water, roll it lightly, and place it in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. When the shirt was properly damp, I learned to iron it once, beginning with the collar, moving to the sleeves, then onto the back, finally the front. The next pressing was with starch, perfecting the fabric until it was free of every crease and wrinkle. Then I hung it on a hangar, aligning the shoulder seams with the hangar and buttoning every other button so that the shirt hung smooth and straight.

This was the steamy summer when I decided that wearing rumpled clothes never harmed anyone and that, like Bartleby, I simply preferred not to . . . iron, that is. I also decided that being paid for each shirt or pressed boxer short was labor I never wished to undertake after the summer ended, especially because the full wage was not mine to keep. Mother subtracted her costs first. She calculated some sum for the electricity, leasing an iron and board from her, and, of course, the starch.

Some of you reading this are cheering my mother’s ingenuity. Sure, she taught me the value of labor, the skill of ironing, and how to satisfy customers who would call Mother to report that Mr. So-and So’s collar was not stiff enough. She also taught me to dislike the face-off known as Quality Control and encounters with management, especially when Manager-Mother decided that I could do all the family’s ironing that summer. When I protested that I was not being paid to meet the ironing demands of the family, I received Mother’s stony stare in answer. When I whined that it was unfair to make me iron all my sister’s clothing while not asking her to do any of her own, Mother gave me the standard excuse: You do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it; she doesn’t so it’s just easier for you to do it.

That really stung, especially because I was required to pick up and clean my sister’s room as well as my own for the same reason. I had to help dust furniture, but Sis did not. She had learned to pout, cry, tattle, and appear to be quite sick. I learned to soldier on in spite of these.

Lest you doubt that truth, allow me to tell you one more story. As a sophomore in high school, just fifteen, I was given orders to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for a great-aunt and her husband who would be guests at the table. Mother was gone, having driven my dad’s father to a medical center in Texas to discover if something more could be done to slow the progress of his cancers. The tests had taken longer than anyone expected so Mother gave me directions over the phone. I told her I didn’t feel well enough to cook, serve, and clean, but she wasn’t having any of it. I told Dad that my throat was sorer than I had ever known it to be, but he said I needed to cook. So I did.

After I washed and dried the last dish and after Dad’s great-aunt waved good-bye, Dad offered to take my temperature. 104°! Finally, at the doctor's the next day, I learned that I had strep throat. Dad just bought the antibiotic and told me to stay in my room. Mom came home and set a plate of crackers and a bubbly glass of 7-Up by my bed. That was it. No thank you or we’re sorry.

I guess you could give them the benefit of the doubt: after all, Grandpa was dying; I’m sure they were distracted. Or you might say that my parents’ generation had different attitudes. They didn’t believe in coddling younguns; they believed in making them tough enough to make good decisions, work hard every day, and never ask for a handout.

And you’d be right--except for the matter of my sister. She has more in common with the wicked step-sisters who mocked poor Cinderella when their own mother, Cinderella’s stepmother, assigned so many chores that Cinderella needed the magic of bluebirds, adorable mice, and fairy godmothers to break free and find her Prince--which I did, by the way, and he’s wonderful.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year, New Beginnings



As the new year begins, most of us grow reflective. We think about the good and bad in the year preceding; we hope for more good than bad in the coming year. We assess our own shortfalls and vow to transform them into strengths. So it is with me, and thus, I realize that mothers the world over deserve our remembrance as do sufferers everywhere. This blog will turn its view to the world past and present, not just to the progress and degeneration of my own mother’s journey. And with that new world view, I offer an essay, “Unsung Heroes,” written by me and first posted on April 4, 2011 at http://livinglikeatticus.blogspot.com:

One of my all-time favorite movies, Hope Floats, stars Sandra Bullock as Birdee Pruitt and Gena Rowlands as Birdee’s quirky mother, Ramona Calvert. Both roles, as written and acted, celebrate motherhood, a common condition. Many, many women play the same role every day. But motherhood, especially single motherhood, done well, is heroic, demanding raw courage and compassion that exceeds every expectation. Birdee and Ramona have both courage and compassion--although Birdee, in particular, must walk a long trail of tears before she can pick up the hero’s crown.

The most heart-wrenching scene stars little Bernice, Birdee’s daughter, played powerfully by Mae Whitman, currently convincing viewers as Amber on NBC’s Parenthood. In the 1998 film, Bernice struggles to defend her mother from all suitors and herself from total collapse after her narcissistic father allows his new love to humiliate Birdee on national television and abandons his family in order to start anew. He fails to write a note or even console his daughter. Birdee does that, pretending to be the man her daughter needs by constructing a fond farewell and tucking it away where Bernice will surely find it.

The note, written with good intentions, becomes a cruel gesture because Bernice clings to the idea that her mother invented, the idea that her father wants her, misses her, and needs her. But when Daddy finally comes to Texas to visit, Bernice expects to go home with him. This time, Birdee refuses to pretend that her soon-to-be ex-husband is a good man, husband, and father. She cannot shield Bernice from his self-absorption. She watches stoically as Bernice hurriedly packs and tries to climb into the car. Birdee waits for her daughter’s inevitable return once this man who fathered a child fails to resemble a father. He denies his daughter’s pleas, even locking the car doors against her.

Little Bernice moves from desperation and disbelief to complete heartbreak. She stands on the sidewalk as the car disappears, sobbing and shrieking “Daddy” and “You want me.” Birdee carries her back into the house that is now her only home.

I cry as Birdee listens to her daughter’s need. I cry for Bernice’s grief, the sorrows of every human who longs to rewrite the truth, spinning it to a different, happier ending. Birdee, overcoming her own grief at the loss of a marriage, her mother, and a future she desired, quells her own tears to dry her daughter’s. She even sustains the lie when Bernice asks why Birdee created the note, signing “Daddy,” not “Mommy.”

Birdee refuses to be seduced by bitterness. She does not say, “Because your daddy is a thoughtless, selfish prick who did not think about how you must be feeling. He failed to provide for us and for our emotional needs. I will never forgive him for failing you--never!” Instead, Birdee allows Bernice to cling to one shred of a dream that once her daddy loved her enough to write a note. Perhaps one day, he will write again.

Countless single mothers and fathers are as selfless and brave as the fictional Birdee. Every day they hold their tongues and sigh away their bitter breath. They allow their children to believe. For hope, as Emily Dickinson suggested, is fragile. It is a creature with feathers that rises from the depths of despair and carries us higher than our present. Heroic parents let hope live while stitching invisible safety nets to catch their children when they must fall--as they surely will. We all do, yet we wake each morning, hoping for a better day.