The Recipe for Less Stress on Modern Parents? Relax

I’ve been intrigued with two new books focused on the challenges that modern parents face. I’m in the midst of reading Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun, which was featured on NPR recently. I feel a bit validated, as many of the issues women are facing today, and their problems, were highlighted by their own mothers in the book I wrote with Deborah Carr, Making Up With Mom: not enough “me” time and too much time invested in their kids. Senior says that women today are stressed, primarily because they’re in the service of their children. In our book, the mothers of these women complained that they brought the pressures on themselves. They don’t let their children entertain themselves. They should be less indulgent and less scheduled. They helicopter parent them until they lose the ability to be resourceful and self-sufficient. We wrote that these types of complaints were cause for a generational rift. I’m curious, if we went back, seven years after interviewing these mothers of young children, whether they would agree that Mom was right. In her book, Overwhelmed, also featured on NPR, Brigid Schulte, makes many of the same arguments that Senior does: that women today feel compelled, more than ever, to do it all, to be the perfect career woman and the perfect mom and in doing so, are super stressed.
When my children were young, I found myself on the same treadmill as those featured in both of these books. A type A person by nature, I scheduled my kids in scads of extracurricular activities, booking them with a lineup of summer camps that made them busy as a corporate CEO. With my oldest child, now 22, I was slightly obsessed with ensuring she get into a college with the most prestigious name. I poured money into standardized test tutors. I sweated over ever B that came home on a report card (though there were rarely any.) I worried about my kids’ welfare and their future. I worried about my job. But, listening to the authors on recent NPR interviews — who themselves are the parents of young children caught up in the rat race — I realize that I’m no longer that person. With the benefit of time, I have changed. Now the parents of three almost grown-ups: ages 22, 19 and 16, I have a very different view. I’m not obsessing. And I’m no longer overwhelmed. With my third child beginning the college search, I’m not focused on pushing her to apply to the most competitive schools. Instead, I want her to attend a place where she’ll feel comfortable and happy. She’s decided, to reduce her own stress levels, to apply to several schools where she has a strong chance of being admitted. That’s lifted the pressure on her to agonize over scoring high on the standardized tests. She’s bright, resourceful and delightful and I’m sure she’ll make the most of her education and be successful — wherever she goes. And I’m taking a cue from my oldest. As she embarked on babysitting before finding a full-time job, she remarked that the only qualification of a mother these days is to be a cook and a chauffeur. She sees the craziness of parents’ lives today and has sworn that she’ll do it differently. Should she have children, her time will not be spent in the car. A recent college graduate, she’s looking to surround herself with a community of supportive friends. Instead of slaving away at a low paying internship or punching a clock at a nine-to-five office job, she got a position on a farm. Money isn’t the priority for her; the chance to be outdoors in nature makes her far happier, at least for now.
If anything good is to come out the intense lifestyles of today’s middle-class parents, and their musings about the negative impact it has, it’s that our children will likely do things differently. I’m already seeing that in the millennials who are focused on meaningful passions and non-profit work, on changing the world for the better, on protesting round-the-clock hours spent at work, on leading a balanced life. This all makes a great deal of sense to me. Instead of getting caught up in such matters that ultimately will seem trivial: sports trophies, long discarded report cards and a bevy of college acceptance letters, my wish for my children is simple: to have people in their lives they love who love them back. That support can get you through the toughest of times. I’m sure that mothers today will continue to complain about how they’re falling short and how insanely busy their lives are. I hope that this discussion will ultimately lead to moderation, to giving kids — and with that adults — less to do, so they learn how to be bored and even work at a minimum wage job and perform household chores. In the end, these years will fly by and many of us will wish we spent less time agonizing over the challenges, and more time embracing the true joys that come with parenthood.

Grounded

Elementary School Reunion, 11/29/13

Elementary School Reunion, 11/29/13

When I hear that word, I don’t think of a punishment that my parents levied when I was young. Instead, it takes on a far positive connotation, one of gratefulness this time of year, when I have the chance to reconnect with my childhood friends and family. Last night, one of my long-time friends hosted a reunion of my elementary school class. While I remain in close touch with several of those I have known since I was five-years-old, there were many that I remembered fondly and had not seen in forty plus years. It’s an odd feeling seeing someone when that much time has passed between you. But I found conversations to be effortless; the childhood memories we shared so vividly allowed us to easily bond decades later. A common theme among this group was the simple lives we led, unencumbered by adult intervention. I recalled sleepovers where my friend and I played endless rounds of “Mystery Date,” the board game where you pick a card (or is it spin the wheel? I forget) and hope that the photo of the handsome man in a tuxedo will be there, instead of the “dud.” How would parents of today react to such a board game? We played that game in my friend’s attic in a tiny residence that housed a family of eight. It never seemed particularly cramped to me, but instead full of vibrancy. We reminisced about riding our bikes or walking to each other’s homes without keeping our parents apprised of where we were. In this city of one square mile, a historic neighborhood with sidewalks, we all lived within blocks of each other. And we were raised in humble surroundings. Many parents were working class; the houses were often 1,000 square feet or less. As the family size and incomes grew, many, mine included, moved to larger homes in the same city or left the school district entirely. But I think the common thread, based on this evening spent reconnecting, was that we had a firm foundation, a place full of supportive friends and family who were there when we needed them. It was a situation that allowed us all to try out independence and charting our own course. Many people are eager to shed their childhood skin, moving far away from where they grew up and happily never returning for reunions or to see old friends and family. I feel grateful that I was launched in such a supportive environment. A village raised me and I welcome the chance to return to that place whenever the opportunity arises.

Taming the Stresses of Teenage Life

My daughter was sitting at the kitchen table recently, overwhelmed with school work and keeping up with her many tweets and texts when she had a revelation: “Mom,” she said, “I think it’s much harder being a teen today than it was when you were my age.” I replied, “Yes, I couldn’t agree more.” Between the rigorous demands of schoolwork and extracurricular activities required to get into any respectable college and the relentless intrusion of social media that prohibits teens from ever unplugging, it’s rough being a teenager today. Young people feel the pressure to be perfect that they see manifested in Twitter feeds that show everyone else having a great time. Media image of coifed models greet them at the persistent click of a button. Online bullying has become commonplace. All of this is taking a huge toll on our teens. I repeatedly speak with other parents who share their stories of children in desperate need of mental health services. High school was once a time to be carefree. But so many teens spend these years engrossed in worry. It’s no wonder that many indulge in dangerous alcohol abuse as a response to the pressure. My daughter, an editor of her high school newspaper, plans to write an article about how teenage life today compares to that of a generation ago. I hope, in doing so, she’s able to shed some light on what we’re doing wrong, so we as a society can figure out ways to do it right before our youth are further compromised.

How Much Is An Article Worth? Writing For Free Is Not the Answer

 

         I wanted to stand up and shout a resounding “amen!” after reading Tim Kreider’s article in The New York Times that exposed the way publications try to get experienced writers to offer their services for free. This was also exposed by Nate Thayer, who blogged about being approached by The Atlantic to write an article without being compensated even one penny. In an e-mail, Thayer told me his post received thousands of responses. It clearly struck a chord. This is a huge pet peeve of mine as well. Like Kreider, I’ve been approached numerous times by publications – including many upstarts – to write a blog for free. Like him, it astounds me that journalism is one field where editors feel no qualms about exploiting labor. There’s no question that so many publications are taking full advantage of the fact that there’s a plethora of inexperienced writers out there, many of whom are eager to see their name in print. And the promise of “exposure” is a great lure. As Kreider does, I also use the offers as an opportunity to enlighten editors on how I earn a respectable living as a freelance journalist and can’t possibly afford to work for free. The one exception is blogging for The Huffington Post, which I do feel reaches a large audience. Still, I oppose in principle their model, which does not compensate bloggers, so I don’t contribute often to the site. I also go a step further. When an editor asks me to research an in-depth article and offers a meager amount of money, I don’t hesitate to turn them down. I let them what a fair rate is for such an article, written by an experienced writer, I know that my responses often fall on deaf ears, as there are plenty of other writers out there happy for the work. I was intrigued by a recent discussion of freelancing on the Diane Rehm Show, which discussed a freelancers union. It will take some formal measure like this to get freelancers to unite and challenge the slave labor trend.

Oh Sweet, Lazy Summer, Where Have You Gone?

           I’ve been enjoying the plethora of recent articles — as abundant as the vegetable harvest — that look back nostalgically on the simple summers of a generation ago. This is yet another area where technology has encroached, killing creativity and imagination in its wake. I recall entire days spent immersed in reading Gone With the Wind or Little Women, only stopping to eat. When my friends and I got together, we did not sit side-by-side staring at our iPhones, a favorite pastime of my daughter and her pals. One close friend and I spent numerous days giving each other manicures, playing board games, biking to the neighborhood pool, or just hanging out, where I would routinely utter the words “What do you want to do?” and she would respond “I don’t know. What do you want to know?” This back-and-forth could go on for an hour, though at no point did we complain of our boredom to a parent, not matter how desperate we became.

          Flash forward to the present summer, where there is a never-ending supply of screen activity. Even when my daughter is alone, her community is with her: on Twitter, Instagram and through relentless texting. The texts can be overwhelming, but when they abate, it results in a feeling of rejection. Reading a book is often looked upon as a quaint pastime of a bygone era.

          It doesn’t help that middle class children are overscheduled, their days dictated by parents who find intellectually challenging activities for them, be it exotic vacations overseas or day camps to explore the fun of physics. I feel like a rebel at times, but I’m finally at peace with the unscheduled summer. My children either take the initiative or — heaven forbid — they’re bored. It’s frustrating, but, faced with an endless day before them, they eventually become adept at figuring out how to fill it. I also insist that they pay for their expenses and get a summer job. My daughters ran a preschool camp in our backyard starting at age 11. They quickly appreciated earning money that they could spend without having to constantly ask my permission for something they want to buy. Now all teenagers, they’re gainfully employed. I am constantly amazed how few parents of teens encourage their children to look for a job. They fear it will unduly burden them, that it’s wrong to require a middle class child to be employed and that they should be focused on activities that bolster their college applications. But already I’ve seen the benefits of this experience. It’s taught my children to be resourceful in finding the job. They they’ve had to interact with adults — no easy task for today’s teen. They’re now more responsible and assertive and have gained exposure to all different types of individuals they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. But perhaps the biggest benefit to me, as someone who works from home, is that once their shift is over, they’re so exhausted that they rarely utter the words, “I’m bored.”    

Diving Deep Into a Local Story

In these days of sound bite journalism, being given the chance to write 5,000 words delving into a topic for a mainstream publication is a privilege. When I’m asked to contribute an article for The Ann, a magazine based in Ann Arbor, no word length is discussed. The idea is that I should submit a piece that’s long enough to do justice to the topic and to include all the important aspects so the piece is fair. So I dove in to the meaty subject of whether the city of Ann Arbor needs a new world class hotel and conference center. The result is this article. To those who don’t live here, the subject may seem trite. But for the many who have been pushing for a luxurious place to host meetings, those recruiting for the university and others seeking to boost tourism, it’s a big deal. In researching this article, I was able to learn more about local government and the role that the University of Michigan and private industry play when it comes to a decision like this. I found that there is no easy answer to why the city does not have a four star hotel. But at the very least, I hope the piece shed light on the issue and will become the launching point for further discussion.