A new school has been tough, for my daughter… AND me.

Early this spring, I watched anxiously as lottery numbers were drawn for the magnet school my girls were attending. We had just bought a house in a zone across town, and I was crossing my fingers that both my girls would get a lottery slot and would be able to stay at what many argue is the best public magnet school in town. To my dismay, my upcoming Kindergartener got a spot, but her sister – along with 5 other siblings moving into 2nd grade – was out of luck.

I walked into our neighborhood elementary school on Monday morning to register her for 2nd grade, and felt anxious the entire time I was there. The school is MUCH larger, with over 1,000 students. It’s much more diverse, has low test scores, is a Title I school, hasn’t had art for the last two years, and, well…. just isn’t their last school. The past few days have been very emotional for me and my daughter, and I’ve thought about a lot of things.

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I’m more judgemental and biased than I thought I was.

A Hispanic man with tattoos covering his entire body walked his son into the school and got in the registration line. Walking past him on their way out was another father-son pair. The father was a tall black man with gold teeth and large gold cross necklace. I won’t lie; if I were alone on a dark street with either of them, I’d feel nervous. Standing in those registration lines were many Hispanics, Blacks, Whites… and me.

When I left the school that morning, I was disgusted with myself. I do not believe that any single race or ethnicity is more valuable than another, or deserves different treatment. Even if I find myself feeling uncomfortable with someone, I always try to be kind and compassionate, treating them as I would hope to be treated myself. But when I found myself in a situation that also involved my children, and who they will be surrounded by every day, my own biases and judgements came bubbling up to the surface.

Even though it made me feel terribly human to come face-to-face with my own faults, I reminded myself that humanity is a work in progress. I might feel uncomfortable. I might judge others prematurely. But, I am aware of it. It’s not who I want to be and it’s not how I want to raise my children. I won’t try to influence who my daughter befriends at school. We’ll invite those friends over no matter what their skin color or socioeconomic status. And I’ll do my best to judge less and accept more.

It’s really hard to feel as though you’re not giving your child the best.

I was a homeschooling mom only a year ago. I felt frustrated when I read about a lot of public school policy, and vowed to give my children a good education – one that fosters a love of learning through art, projects, play, and interest-based units of study. When we moved back from Japan, I rented a house in the zone for arguably the best magnet school in the city. It was the perfect transition from homeschooling – projects galore, unit study, and “exhibit nights” for showing off student work, art, and music. I felt good about what my kids were doing when they were away from me during the day. I knew the families at that school were promoting education at home, and were heavily involved in the school’s operations.

Watching my eldest transition to a school which is focused on “intervention for low-performing students,” that spends most of the day on reading and writing intervention and only 30-35 minutes of combined science and social studies, has no art class, and which, in my daughter’s words, consists of “only paperwork every day,” has been really difficult for me. I feel like I’ve failed her.

It’s also really hard to watch your child feel scared and sad, knowing you can’t make those feelings go away.

Welcome to one of the suckiest parts of parenting: not being able to protect your children from everything. My kids are going to feel scared, disappointed, sad, grief-stricken, embarrassed, angry, and panicked. I can’t protect them from feeling those emotions at some point in their life. However, when I can’t protect them, I want to help them figure out how to get through it. When my daughter cries about missing her friends, threatens to run away from the school if she gets bored, and begs to go back to her old school, all I can do is tell her, “Yeah kid, it sucks. And it’s okay for you to feel all those things.” I give her extra hugs, I plan playdates with her old friends, and I take her out for ice-cream on exceptionally difficult days. I let her feel those difficult feelings, and I remind her that she’ll be loved and supported through the good days and the bad.

I didn’t feel compelled to fix public schools when my children were both going to a good one.

It’s easy to think that someone else is doing the hard work for you. Sure, I knew that public schools had their problems and needed some help, but my kids were at a good public school. I was fine with sitting back and letting someone else fix the bad schools. Now that my kid is at a not-so-good school, I feel a little differently and I know that’s not fair. Perhaps I’ve been a little obsessed with the school situation this year, but it’s made me start doing some research about how I can become involved in our county’s educational system and how I can personally help my daughter’s school.

Not being able to afford a school art teacher is a shame, so I started looking for other art options. I found a local business that provides art classes to kids after school, AT public schools, and I gave the owner a call in addition to emailing our principal. The following week, the owner and principal were having a meeting and they’re now 99% sure they’ll be sending home flyers for the new program within the next two weeks. My daughter is thrilled.

My daughter’s teacher has a pretty strict homework policy as well, and with little research showing any benefit of homework in the early grades, I’m thinking of asking for a meeting with her to see why the policy was created. Are there other ways to make sure that kids are learning what they need to, without having to send home a lot of homework and penalizing kids with a loss of recess if homework isn’t done or correct? I’d like to think so.

I knew the transition to a new school wouldn’t be easy, but I’m surprised at how difficult it has been for ME. It’s comforting, however, to remind myself that I don’t have a lot of bad memories of school – despite going to four schools in four years from K-3rd grade when I was a child, including a school right smack dab in the middle of the projects. I actually loved that school. We’ll keep taking one day at a time, and we’ll make it the best year we can.

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Did your child’s education plans change this year? How has the transition been for your child, and your family? I’d love to hear your comments.

Do my children come before me?

I remember sitting in my recliner, watching my stomach jump every couple of seconds as the baby growing inside me hiccuped. Beside me was a pile of parenting books that I poured over in the months before her arrival. “I’m going to do this right,” I swore to myself, and to her. “I’m going to be a great mom.”

Like many women, I was caught off-guard by my pregnancy. I hadn’t been trying to get pregnant, and it wasn’t exactly the best time for us to have a baby. My ex-husband was starting medical school, and I was a month away from beginning a PhD program when I saw those two pink lines on the pregnancy test. I quickly moved from a state of disbelief and fear, to a state of excited anticipation and resolve to be a fantastic mother. And that is exactly what I became: a mother.

I know I am not the only woman to struggle with a sense of identity after having children, and as I contemplated getting divorced, the struggle intensified. Since my children had been born, I had been fixated on their physical and emotional health. I made all of my decisions with their interests in mind, not because I’d forgotten who I was, but because I was focused on molding who they would turn out to be. There was so much love inside my heart for my two little girls, that my priorities quietly and powerfully shifted towards them.

Making the decision to ask for a divorce was perceived by many people as a selfish decision. It looked that way to others, and it felt that way to me. Knowingly choosing something that would deeply hurt my children was at odds with the core of my being. But, at the same time, I knew that if I did not make that decision – that gut-wrenchingly hard decision – my own needs and desires would forever take a backseat to the needs of others.

Women face scrutiny day-in and day-out when making decisions for themselves that don’t appear to be based on their children. People I knew (well, and not-so-well) questioned my sanity, my dedication to my children, and even my love for them.

Since Kim needs to find self and put self first hopefully her husband can spend LOTS of time with their girls. I am certain she has validated her reasons which is fine. I was in the CHURCH when they married in front of GOD, friends, and family. Not ‘the universe’. I always cry for the children in these situations, they don’t deserve this and becoming a parent is ALL about putting them before yourself. I pray for her husband, their girls and Kim too.”

“Please somehow put the children first.”

For a woman who had been a stay-at-home mom for the last five years, and homeschooled her children, it was inconceivable to me.

“…becoming a parent is ALL about putting them before yourself.”

But… is it?

In my counseling practice, I see numerous teenage and adult women who don’t recognize, don’t trust, and don’t listen to their inner voice. They are out of touch with their own desires and sources of happiness because for most of their lives, their source of happiness has been the happiness of those around them. And when children come along, it takes things up a notch. 

One of my friends wrote a controversial blog post about her children needing her love more than her marriage, more friends got all up-in-arms over an article criticizing American parenting, and the back-and-forth argument over what constitutes “good” parenting vs. “bad” parenting has been going on for ages. The only thing I can gleam from the bickering and criticism is that, somehow, every human being has to find a balance between their needs and the needs of others.

I want my children to learn that mom is a person too. I have a job that I enjoy. I like having my own money. I like it when bedtime rolls around and I can spend some quiet time with my husband (lord knows I don’t want another divorce, so quality time with my husband is important!). I enjoy talking to my friends just as much as they enjoy talking to theirs. And I love carving out kid-free time that involves zazen, writing, or reading – the things that nourish my soul.

When it comes down to it, I want my children to learn that their needs are no more or less important than mine, their dad’s, their step-father’s, step-sisters’ or anyone else’s for that matter.

What do you think? Does becoming a parent mean that the kids always come before you?

The more I learn, the less I know.

“Before tearing your children’s lives apart, please consider counseling. My husband and I were at this cross-section in our lives 15 years ago. We muddled through and now, I can’t even begin to imagine not sharing this journey called life with anyone other than my best friend. Family is worth fighting for and working hard on. Sorry, not sure about your Universe view. Will pray to the Heavenly Father, my “universe”, for wisdom and the realization that nothing is set in stone. God allows free will. You make choices. You have consequences. May they be good ones particularly for your children.”

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On July 7th, 2015, I got married for the second time. According to many, it should never have happened. Less than 12 months ago, I was still married to my college sweetheart and living in Japan with our two small daughters. The full story of how my first marriage ended has never been told, and I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day in a place so public as this blog. But, the watered-down version is that I left my first husband for another man, and I haven’t looked back.

Assume what you may, but I didn’t have an affair. (The logistics of doing so while living on two separate continents made that quite difficult.)  I loved a man who wasn’t my husband, told my husband, watched as the shit hit the fan, and realized that my marriage was over long before I knew it was. I knew before divorce papers were ever drawn up that I’d get married again, and I knew who I would marry. In the most ballsy move I’ve ever made, I let myself fall deep down into the rabbit hole. I left one relationship to jump into another and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

Opening my inbox to find a Facebook message accusing me of “tearing my family apart” and warning me of the consequences of my decisions (not to mention, belittling my spiritual beliefs), was one of the more hurtful moments I experienced when I decided to get a divorce. At the time, it seemed as though everyone had an opinion about my life; everyone knew my marriage better than I did. I notice myself struggling with the desire to make everyone understand. I want everyone to know how good this is. I want everyone to know how happy I am; how happy my kids are. I want everyone to see the difference between this relationship and my last one. I know, however, that it will never happen and the only reason that is okay – the only reason that the judgement, the opinions, and the estrangement don’t get me down – is that I KNOW.

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On July 7th, I married the man that I love. I said yes to the most spiritual, most intuitive, most supportive, most fulfilling relationship I’ve ever experienced with another human being. I didn’t do what many people wanted, or thought was right, but I trusted myself. A part of me loved him before I was born, and long before I knew of his existence.  In the most cliche, yet truthful way of explaining it, I acknowledged the pull of the Universe and agreed to go along with its plan.

In the last 12 months, I’ve learned who my friends are. I’ve learned how to better trust myself and my intuition. I’ve learned to stop judging work really hard to judge less. I’ve learned more about who I am and what is important to me. I’ve learned that some of the best decisions are also the scariest and most challenging.

And I’ve also learned the most important thing of all: that I don’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

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What are they really asking you for?

“Do you miss Dad?” she asked, looking towards me as she watched me type the email she had just dictated to her father.

“What?” I asked her, hoping both that I had misheard her question, and that asking again would buy me some time to come up with an answer.

“Do you miss Daddy?” she asked again. Her eyes were glistening in that way they do when her tears hinge on the answer that comes out of my mouth. She looked both hopeful and apprehensive.

I panicked. No, I don’t really miss your dad. I miss his friendship. I miss being able to talk to him without feeling the weight of the baggage that we both hold on to. I miss the ease of having a conversation about… anything. But do I miss being married to him? Do I miss having him around every day? No. No, I don’t.

Fortunately for me, in the 5 seconds between her question and my response, I saw something else in her eyes that illuminated the answer she needed to hear.

“I wish your Daddy lived closer so that you could see him all the time. I know you miss him.”

A look of relief washed over her. In that moment, I saw a child who needed to be told it was okay that she missed her dad, that her mom understood this, and that her mom wanted her to have her dad closer. She smiled up at me, and gave me a hug, and the moment passed.

My kids ask me a lot of difficult questions, and my first response is usually panic. I want to get it right. I want to have the perfect answer. Where I go wrong is the thought that the question is really about me. My daughter wasn’t asking if I missed being married to her dad. She was asking whether or not I understood that she did. In that moment, it was all she needed from me. I didn’t need to explain how I felt. I didn’t need to point out the difference between missing a person and missing a relationship. I didn’t need to make it complicated. I just needed to validate her own feeling of loss and separation.

I don’t always say the right thing, and I make a lot of mistakes. But seeing the relief on her face that morning was a great reminder that I can’t always assume it’s about me. In the future, I hope I can remember to ask “What does she need from me right now?” instead of, “What am I supposed to say?”

I’d love to hear from you. Has there ever been a time when you felt like you got it right, and were surprised by the way in which it happened? Do you panic when you get a tough question from your child? Do you make your answer more complicated than it should be? 

 

Do you catastrophize? I sure do.

I came downstairs after my shower and the tv was still on. I had told my 7-year-old to turn it off after the previous show, and once again, she hadn’t followed directions. Without saying a word, I walked over to the tv and turned it off.

“Oh! Come onnnnnn!” she yelled.

I whipped around and said, “Did I say you could watch all the shows you wanted? Or did I tell you that you needed to turn it off when the show was over?”

She grinned her “oops, you caught me” face, and happily hummed down the hall to her bedroom.

I was livid. In my head, I heard: “She doesn’t listen to anything I say! She doesn’t respect me. She is a sneaky little liar. I’m never going to get her to follow directions. I’m going to have to constantly police the tv and other screens. Should I punish her? Maybe I need to punish her severely! Maybe I need to tell her she can’t watch the movie tonight for ‘Family Movie Night.’ But… that seems so harsh. But I need to make the punishment sting. I need to make her know that I’m serious about following rules. I need to make her listen to me!”

And it continued as I walked past her room and upstairs, glancing at that 7-year-old terrorist who was happily playing with toys: “I’m a terrible mother. How can I counsel people about their children when I can’t even control my own? Maybe this is because of the divorce…. Maybe I’ve ruined our relationship and she’s always going to hate me. If I can’t get control of her now, things are just going to get worse and worse! Dammit! Ugh! I hate children!”

I yelled for her to come talk to me upstairs, and I tried my hardest to explain to her my concerns about watching too much tv, and how it made me feel when she didn’t do as I asked. She attempted to talk with me for a few minutes, but very quickly started shutting down, rubbing her eyes, and saying she was “too stressed” to talk about this. I demanded that she stay and talk with me, so she said that when something like this happened, I needed to “use my head,” instead of punishing her.

My 7-year-old is lecturing me?!?!

I decided to let her go instead of strangling her.

Thankfully, I called my partner who talked me off the ledge. His wonderful advice? To take a deep breath and stop catastrophizing the situation. 

Do you ever do this? Do you create this depressing vision of how the future is going to go to hell because of some problem you’re having in the present moment?

Does my child NEVER listen to me? Of course that’s not true.

Does my child NEVER have any self-control? Not true.

Does my child NEVER respect me? Nope, not true again.

What’s true is that my 7-year-old loves to watch tv. What’s true is that she doesn’t have fantastic self-control in every situation (and let’s be honest… mine isn’t great). What’s also true is that she rarely gets in trouble at school, helps enthusiastically with preparing dinner, loves to make me proud, and is capable of finding other things to do when the tv is off.

Do I remember those things in the moment? Not usually. So I end up working myself into a tizzy over something that’s really not so bad. Is it frustrating? Yes. The end of the world? No.

But what about the tv, you ask? Am I going to punish her?

For the time being, we’re going to keep attempting to set limits around the tv. I even turn off the power strip if I want to make it sure it stays off for a while. If we catch her watching at times when she’s not supposed to, we’ll turn the tv off and redirect her towards something else. And I’m even toying with the idea of just removing all limits on the tv. Is it possible that she’s glued to it because she thinks tv time is scarce? Who knows. All I do know is that my kid is doing alright. She loves me. I love her. And we’ll get through this phase and move on (towards the next difficult phase, I’m sure).

Late-night screens = Late school morning

It was 7:05am, and I went downstairs to fix my kids some breakfast. It was strangely quiet in the house, and it didn’t take me long to realize that my 7-year-old and 5-year-old were still snoozing.  I peeked into their room and sure enough, they were passed out. As I pulled their bedroom closed, something laying beside my 7-year-old caught my eye. Sticking out from under her back was a blue iPad. She wasn’t just sleeping a little later than normal…. Turns out, she had gotten out of bed shortly after I  tucked her in, unplugged the iPad in the kitchen, and carried it to her room. I had no idea how long she’d stayed up playing on it, but I was sure it was quite a bit later than her bedtime.

I closed the bedroom door and told her step-sister not to wake her up yet. Then, I went upstairs to complain to my partner about my terribly frustrating child. The iPad (and screens in general) have become quite a problem for my daughter. She’s been sneaking around the house with the iPad, playing it when we’ve asked her not to, and she’s become obsessed with being in front of a screen if she’s not in school. She seems to have lost the ability to come up with anything else to do! When I found her in bed with the iPad at her side that morning, I was fed up.

“We’re going to need to have a BIG talk with her about this,” said my partner. And then it hit me: WE weren’t going to need to punish her. She was going to experience a little something called “natural consequences.” I quickly went back downstairs and told her step-sister to leave her be. Our work schedules, and my step-daughter’s school hours, would allow us to take our sweet time leaving the house that morning. My 7-year-old HATES to be late, and often drives us crazy by announcing what time it is and hurrying everyone along in the morning because she’s panicked about being late for class. It was perfect: Because she stayed up too late playing on the iPad, we were going to allow her to sleep as long as she could, making herself late for school. 

When she woke up at 7:30am (we usually leave for school by 7:40am) and realized how late she was, she immediately suggested that she stay at home for the day because she was “feeling so tired.” We had a quick chat about how she had obviously stayed up late playing the iPad (which she knows she is not supposed to do), and that staying at home was not an option. She would be late for school, and if she was tired, she was just going to have to do her best to make it through the day.

In the middle of talking to her, I realized that I was enjoying this situation a little too much. The tone I was using, and how I was choosing to phrase things, was rubbing her face in her predicament. I was not hiding the fact that I was glad she was going to be late to school; that I was somehow “teaching her a lesson.”

The truth is, there was no need for me to point out her bad choice. There was no need for me to rub her face in it, or make sure she had learned a lesson. She hates to be late, and by staying up playing on a screen, she had overslept and made herself late. She had made a not-so-wise choice, and was now going to have to deal the consequences. Welcome to life, kid. 

More often than not, I do not need to create a consequence for bad behavior. Consequences emerge naturally, born out of the universal law of cause and effect. If my child cannot put her clothes in the laundry hamper, her clothes do not get washed. If my child does not feed her goldfish, she is not given the privilege of having a goldfish. If my child does not do her homework, she will sit out of recess at school. If she does not wake up on time, she will be late.

It is not always my job to impose consequences, but it IS my responsibility to help my child learn to avoid unpleasant consequences and deal with them when they come. 

“But what about the iPad? Didn’t you take it away?”

Yes, I took away her iPad privileges, but not in the spirit of punishment. When she asked about it, I told her, “that it looked as though she had been having a difficult time making good decisions about when to use it. So, to help her avoid those tough decisions, we had decided to put the iPad away for a while.” She’s not happy about it, and that’s okay.

I’m not sure when she’ll get it back, because honestly, she doesn’t really NEED the iPad. I think a break from the screen would be good for her. But, eventually, we’ll give her the opportunity to make better choices and if she can use the iPad appropriately, she’ll have access again. She’s on the learning curve just like the rest of us.

“The Cultivated Mother” is Retiring

For several years, I’ve been blogging over at “The Cultivated Mother,” and as much I’ve loved sharing that space with you, TCM feels like the wrong fit these days. I’m not trying to cultivate myself predominantly as a mother. I don’t feel like a newbie to the journey of motherhood, and I’m no longer trying to flesh out the values that I bring to parenting. Instead, as a woman who has divorced her husband, moved across the world, sent her homeschooled kids to public school, gone back into the workforce, and fallen in love with another man, I feel as though I’m now cultivating a life.

It’s been 5 months since I wrote a post for “The Cultivated Mother,” and there are many reasons for my online absence. My time, emotions, and loyalties have all been affected by my full-time job, my divorce, and my new relationship. There were often times when I wanted to write about those transitions – the good and the bad – but I felt restrained by the judgement and questions that I feared would come my way. So, I wrote nothing.

There is one tiny problem, however, with writing nothing: I love to write. I feel compelled to write honestly about this life I am living, struggles included. If there is one person out there who is going through something similar, I want them to know that they are not alone. Being in a relationship is challenging. Parenting is challenging. Hell, LIFE IS CHALLENGING. Pretending that it’s not doesn’t do anyone a favor.

So, “The Cultivated Mother” is going to be retired. It won’t disappear because I think there is a lot of valuable content there. You’ll soon find a link to TCM at the top of the page so that if you ever need homeschooling ideas, parenting advice, or information about living in and visiting Japan, you’ll still have access. In place of TCM, I’ll now be blogging here about anything and everything. You’ll most likely see content related to parenting (including step-parenting), new relationships, divorce, work-life balance, and spirituality.

My purpose is to help others cultivate the life they were meant to live. I believe the best life is the life crafted out of authenticity and intentionality, and though we can move towards that life on our own, the value of a community is priceless. I want to be part of your community, and I want to welcome you into mine. If you can find inspiration somewhere along my journey through life, that’s fantastic. If not, I hope you’ll at least find a little support, an encouraging pat on the back, as you pass by.