Friday, July 27, 2012

Recognize Your Impact

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - Recognized Your Impact
As parents, we are usually aware, in the moment, of those occasions that define us as good parents and those that render us bad parents.  Giving your child a shoulder to cry on when he faces his first disappointment, without weighing in your two cents on the matter = good parent.  Leaving your child sitting on a bench at the bus stop in town while you score some dope a few streets over = bad parent.  The extremes are no-brainers.  It’s the in-between occurrences, which make up the majority of interactions with our kids, we don’t always recognize as having the ability to mold our children’s perceptions.    Chastising your child because she doesn’t know how to decipher between the various tools in the toolbox = ambiguous. 

“Goddammit, Stacy, it’s the Phillips head I need, not the flat head,” my dad yelled at the 8-year–old version of me, from underneath the ’79 Buick, when I handed him the straight-edged tool. 

I was running in and out of the garage bringing tools to my dad, trying to help him with his task of getting the car back up and running.  A natural fixer of all things broken, he was trying to impart some fix-it knowledge onto me by letting me be his assistant for the job.  Unfortunately, what I took from that day was that I was a dumbass for not knowing the difference between the two screwdrivers.  Even as a kid, I knew I was smart, so I wasn’t concerned about not being bright enough to know the difference between the two tools. I was simply upset that I had disappointed my dad. 

Fast forward thirty-some years and I create the same scene with my own child.  I use my 8-year-old daughter’s previous attempt at dusting as an example of how not to dust the house.

“Do you seriously think this clean?” I ask her incredulous.   “If you’re going to do a half-assed job, I’d rather you not help at all.”

Same shit, different year. 

Before I even looked over to see the hurt look in her eyes, I knew the harm I had caused.  I had just hammered her with disapproval.  A super sensitive kid with a sincere want to always be helpful, as well as a need to please, she amazingly held it together for what I thought might be the rest of the evening.  I continued my sweeping, until I opened her bedroom door a few minutes later and found her curled up in my girlfriend’s arms, crying her heart out. 

All the kid was trying to do was help.  In fact, during family cleaning hour, her task was supposed to be mopping, as she loves to mop.  My youngest daughter couldn’t seem to wrap her head around her own dusting assignment and had sauntered off to play dollies, so my older daughter had offered to stand in for her, taking on the additional responsibility.  It was while performing this act of kindness that I spewed such harsh words at her. 

Once she calmed down, I apologized for my harsh words and asked for her forgiveness. 

“It’s OK, Mom,” she said in her sad little voice.  “It’s just not fair that I was just trying to help you and you yelled at me,” she said as her almost-swollen-shut eyes welled up with tears yet again.

No, it’s not OK and it’s not fair.  No amount of stress or craziness is an excuse for taking out your angst on your kids, especially over a dust job!  Enough of those types of interactions with a parent can cause not only problems in parent-child relationships, but also can crack away at the self-esteem of children. 
In trying to figure out how I got the breaking point where I would yell at my kid over something as unimportant as her dusting skills, I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter how I got there.  I just needed to stay the hell away from that point in the future.  The truth of the matter is that no matter how many bits of useful knowledge and skill that my dad has passed down to me over the years, like bleeding the brakes on my car and taking apart my computer and replacing the parts before putting it back together again, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of his ability to fix things is the inadequacy I felt when he yelled at me over the freakin’ screwdriver thirty-some years ago.  I pray that I have not etched my daughter’s memory bank with the same feelings of deficiency over the dust rag.  

Odds are, the damage has already been done.  The good news is that if I’ve done my job right as a parent so far, like my parents did with me, my kids will grow up unscathed by my occasional lapses in parental judgment, and will be able to decipher between a bad parenting interaction and a bad parent.  Only time will tell.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Make Up Your Mind Already

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - Make Up Your Mind - street sign which way to go?
When it comes to making decisions, I teach my kids to consider their options thoughtfully, but ultimately, to make a decision, any decision, even if it’s wrong, instead of waffling indefinitely, as it builds character.  We can learn through both positive and negative results in decision-making.  If you choose the red lollipop instead of the yellow one and you like it, you know you like the cherry flavor and will know to choose it again next time or decide you want to try something new.  Lesson learned.  If you have the option of swimming at the indoor pool or at the beach, and you choose the beach and it rains, forcing the beaches to close, it teaches you that weather is a factor in outdoor activities and can always make or break an outing.  It teaches you risk factoring.  Again, lesson learned.

When gauging a decision, I try to teach my children to trust their guts and go with the first answer that comes to their mind, as it’s usually the best one.  It’s harder with kids, because they don’t have the same level of accumulated knowledge as adults have, so sometimes their instincts are wrong.  I think we all naturally, when given a choice, gravitate toward the prettier, more handsome options, based on surface appraisal.  As we age, though, we develop knowledge that teaches us sometimes otherwise.  A five-year-old will most likely always choose a whole crayon over a broken one, whereas an older child or adult may choose the crayon based on the color, because they realize it can still be valuable.  Similarly, a teen may naturally be initially romantically attracted to a good-looking kid first, before considering the personality, whereas a young adult may look for security and trustworthiness in a mate before considering other attributes, and an even older person, who has been widowed mid-life, may not even consider any of the above, but use the prerequisite of living life to the fullest each day as a criteria to find a mate. 

We change how we make decisions as we get older and accumulate experiences.  When faced with the decision to stay out all night and go straight to work the next morning after a late night of drinking or going home and getting a few hours of shut-eye before heading off to work, a 22-year old may choose to stay out, as the consequences aren’t too life-altering for a young single.  When faced with the same decision at 45, though, most middle-aged adults would choose to go home and get the sleep, as experience has shown that function ability will be at a standstill the next day. 

If you subscribe to that school of thought, you’d assume that as we get older, we tend to get better at making decisions as well.  Because we have learned from our accumulated experiences, we know who to trust, what to expect in terms of consequences for our decisions, when to anticipate problems, where to look for inaccuracies in our reasoning, and why we make the decisions we make.  It’s definitely true for me and most of the folks I’ve grown up with and currently affiliate myself with. 

This must not be true for all, though, as I’ve been shocked to witness the unpredictable decision-making method of the seventy-some-year-old man who owns the building we live in.  At first I thought I had just misjudged this kindly man who had shown so much pride in the unit he rented to us a few years ago.  He claimed that his father had immaculately polished and maintained the woodwork each week and that later in life he took over the job himself.  After moving in and requesting a few broken items to be repaired, we got a mouthful of venom from the owner, telling us we could just pack our stuff and leave if we needed to have the stuff fixed.  Since he snapped, we quickly learned to fix whatever needed repaired ourselves, and deduct it from the rent.  While our first assessment was that he was certifiably crazy, we went on to psychoanalyze him and finally deducted that his issue was that he didn’t like making decisions.  If presented a problem, he didn’t know what to do first.  Should he call the woodworking guy to fix the window carpentry first or call the repair-main to get a custom piece of glass first?  Unable to decide, he would usually resort to doing nothing.  Should he repair or replace the roof that is leaking water into the 2nd floor unit, or take care of getting new drain tiles for the basement that looks like a piece of Swiss cheese when it rains, with water pouring out of every divot?  Since he couldn’t figure out a way to decide, he’d do nothing and let damage continue to accumulate. 

We maintained a doable relationship for 2 years, where we’d fix anything that came up in regards to repairs. Appliance repair and replacement?  No problem, we've got it covered.  Replacing 20-year-old mini-blinds?  No issue at all.  Done.  New door handle to fit into the existing hole in the entry door?  We trolled antique and resale shops for months before finding the right one, but we're finally good. Then last month, he showed both of the apartments in the building to a woman brandishing a tape measure, with a small child in tow.  It didn’t look good for us, as he told us later that he’d received an unsolicited offer for purchase from the woman, and that he was considering the offer.  Even though he said he wasn’t sure if he was ready to sell, the next day he slipped a hand-written note in block letters under our door, letting us know he was not renewing our lease, which was expiring in 3 days time.  Bummed that we didn’t get the opportunity to present an offer of our own to him for the building, as we’d always talked about buying it if he ever decided to sell, we started looking in earnest for a new place to live.  Two weeks later, we were preparing to submit an offer on another building when we received a call from the landlord, telling us he was making his decision tomorrow and he was tired of dealing with this and he wanted to be done with this building.  He told us that if we wanted to submit an offer to buy the building, we’d better put our best foot forward and present it to him the next day.  We jumped through hoops and did just that, only to have him tell us he had no idea what he wanted to do and that he may decide to keep the building and rent it or move back into it himself!  To him I’ll say the same thing I say to my kids, but usually in more palatable language, shit or get off the pot!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Setting the Tone

One of my favorite quotes is from Eleanor Roosevelt:  "Life is what you make of it."  I believe that 100%.  While we can’t control all the variables in any life equation, the way we handle the unexpected can be the difference between a positive or negative experience.  Don’t make a big deal out of something you didn’t expect, and it won’t turn into a major hurdle.  Assume the worst of something, and you’ll get what you expect.  Having proved this mantra to myself over and over, both with my own thoughts and actions, as well as witnessing the words and behavior of others, I’m now at a place in my life where I really try to just have faith in this quote’s meaning.  

When I embark on a potentially tricky task, like sewing a dress from scratch for my daughter with my new sewing machine, even though I haven’t sewn with a machine since the 7th grade, I tell myself how easy it’s going to be and downplay the risks and highlight my ability to complete it. 

“It’ll be great.  It’s like riding a bike, it’ll come back. I’ll figure it out as I go along.  If I need help I’ll ask for it.  I can’t wait to get started!” I tell myself and anyone that will listen.  

I try to put positive energy out there as much as possible, and I’d say a good 90% of the time, I get positive results in return.  While the dress took significantly longer than I expected to finish, and was too short for the older daughter I made it for, it came out super cute and I gave it to my younger daughter, who wears it weekly and thinks I jumped over the moon because I made her a dress.  

On the flip side, although I don’t do it often, when I do set the stage of a situation with a Debbie Downer “wah, wah, wah,” I almost exclusively get smacked down with bad experiences. If I’m tired or trying to do too many things at one time, I’ve been known to put a negative spin on something that hasn’t even happened yet, like going to an organized event.

“I know this party is going to be a beat-down,” I told my partner, Katie, of a recent gala.   

Of course it sucked because I pulled all the negative energy to my side of the room!  The people who started out the evening by being excited about the fun party they were going to, had a freakin’ ball on the other side of the room!  Bottom line is you get back what you put out there in the universe.  

Our recent emergency visit to a local hospital was no exception to this rule.  While driving to the ER, Katie and I realized we had no idea which hospital we were going to.  There are quite a few options for medical attention in our city and Katie was having some unexplained, excruciating pain that needed to be addressed.  We quickly got someone to watch the kids and jumped in the car.  Our general practitioner, Dr. Paine, whose name I mention just for your amusement, had just picked up his 30+ year practice and moved to California within the last month.  We weren’t bound his hospital anymore, but we had yet to choose a new doctor, or hospital for that matter.  We might not even have been having such a conversation about where to go if I hadn’t been so delirious because I was tired.  It was 10pm when we headed out the door for the hospital, and I started in on the over-analyzing I sometimes do.  I brought up the fact that the hospital we were considering visiting was a Catholic affiliate, and that maybe it wouldn’t be the best option for us in case Katie had to be admitted.  The last thing I wanted to deal with tonight was not being able to visit my girlfriend because I’m not family.  We decided we were being ridiculous, as we’d visited this hospital at least a dozen times before in so many years, although never on an in-patient basis, but had never had a problem.  So being of the “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” variety, we headed off to the Catholic affiliate’s ER.   We decided we’d make it a good experience.  Apparently, my take-back did not suffice, though, as my negative vibes were already out there.

There was no one in the waiting room when we arrived, and Katie was immediately ushered into triage.  While the nurse assessing Katie’s situation was not rude or mean to us by any means, she certainly was not up for any congeniality award.  She checked the vitals and wrote down Katie’s responses very matter-of-factly, then ushered us into a filthy, cluttered room to wait for a doctor.  As the nurse walked away, we heard her tangle with another nurse about how she had “f***ed up her paperwork by not getting the right information from a patient.  We instantly decided we didn’t want to cross this nurse.  The doctor came in within a decent period of time, politely asked questions, and ordered a CAT scan.  He said he’d give Katie something to “take the edge off” before the scan.  The pain medicine never arrived, and after three hours in the ER with no conclusive results for any ailments, we again asked for pain management.  It was given, but was not effective for the ultrasound that was to be performed next.  While I wasn’t there in the room for the actual sonogram, I can suffice to say that things took must have taken a downhill turn, as Katie was wheeled back to the ER almost 2 hours later (the test should have taken no longer than 20 minutes), pale as a ghost and in tears.  She was still in pain, but apparently the attitude, actions, and general nasty demeanor of the nighttime radiologist, Nurse Ratchet, had put Katie into a tailspin.  We then watched the ER nurse go rounds with confrontational Nurse Ratchet, and more profanity was flying.  It was like a street fight in there.

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - Setting the Tone - make lemonade out of lemons
All in all, we were in the Emergency Room for 8 hours before Katie was admitted to the hospital for observation, as no source of pain or problem had been detected.  She was released 12 hours later with no further answers, but with a Dilaudid hangover.  It was a rotten experience.  I truly believe in my heart that if I had not set the tone with my Nancy Negative second-guessing how we were going to be treated before we even got to the hospital, our experience would have been completely different.  I’m not saying that the hospital personnel would have necessarily acted any differently or the results of the visit would have changed, but merely that our impressions might be different had we started out with a Patty Positive outlook instead.   Maybe we would have shared a private giggle with the cussing nurse instead of trying to stay out of her way.  Maybe we wouldn’t have noticed the dirt and disorganization of the emergency room, as Katie would have been busy feeling better because of the good drugs she received right off the bat from the doctor who remembered to put the order in because one of us had made a positive impression on him.  Who knows?

What I do know, though, is that we’re all responsible for setting the tone of our lives.  Bitch, moan, and complain all the time and you’re going to bring on more grief in your world.  Make a point of making lemonade out of lemons on a regular basis, and you’re setting yourself up for one sweet life.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Time Without Fanfare

The washer hasn’t been right for months now.  We live in an apartment and the landlord has been informed.  He’s not jumping through hoops to get anyone out here to assess the damage anytime soon.  I’ve had the machine rigged for weeks.  The Bic pen point stuck into the chamber that usually accepts the lid post, keeps the washer running through the cycles.  Without the pen, the cycle stops right before the rinse cycle, leaving the washer full of dirty water and clothes.  The smell is enough to make you seriously consider ever wearing that outfit a second time!

Stacy Snyder - Parent Unplugged - Time Without Fanfare - mom spending time doing laundry with child
This week, the machine took a turn for the worse. I knew something was amiss when I noticed the pen cap had laying on the top the dryer.  It looked as if it had been chewed off the machine by a rabid K-9, by the looks of the twisted metal.  My neighbor’s clothes were fully submerged in stagnant water that smelled as if it had been marinating for days.  After lamenting over the fact that it had to be this week, the week of the broken washer, that my toddler had an accident overnight which required an immediate change of bedding that I did not own, that I decided to walk away from the machine.

I loaded the sheets, blankets, and covers into the car, along with the kids and the rest of the dirty laundry from the week.  We headed out for what I always remember to be, an unpleasant experience, at the laundrymat.  I asked the kids to bring a backpack of coloring books and crayons to keep them occupied while we waited.  Little did I know the backpack would be unnecessarily taking up space in my car, as those girls didn’t even have time to open it.

From the moment we parked the car, the girls were unloading baskets of clothing and cleaning supplies, transferring it all to those big wire baskets on wheels, and choosing machines that would correctly house the loads.  We talked about what the machines do, how much they hold, and why they exist.  They surveyed the articles of clothing, learned how to pre-treat the stains, and had a ball loading up the machines with laundry.  They chose wash cycles based on colors, read instructions on the machines, and poured out detergent to the little line on the cap.  My eldest daughter carried around a detergent cap filled with quarters and the two girls took turns filling the slots with coins when it was time to turn the machine on.  The three of us worked together, moving like a swarm of bees from machine to machine, chit-chatting about laundry and life, taking time to point out the cool gadgets on the machines, and what television shows were playing in the background, until six loads of laundry had been completed. 

My kids have never done laundry before.  At three and eight, it’s completely feasible that the eldest could have been doing her own laundry for a few years, like some of her friends.  She hadn’t, though.  She’s never looked at a machine, asked to pour the detergent, or voiced any curiosity about the laundry process whatsoever. They don’t want to come near the basement in our building, which houses the washer and dryer, because it’s dark, dirty, and damp.  They’ve most certainly never offered to help.  Shame on me, as I’ve most certainly never asked for their assistance!  What’s more astounding is that I hadn’t asked them for their company.

We had more real conversation in the hour and a half we were at the laundrymat than we’ve had in the past two days of bike-riding, swimming, and playing Go Fish.  We talked about things that matter, like how many quarters it takes to equal $2, and how many minutes it will take to dry a down comforter.  We wondered what type of dessert someone might have spilled to create that type of stain and laughed at the designs the soap bubbles made in the washers.  It’s not the activity that matters, it’s the quality time spent.  When the expectation of “an event” is removed, most folks, including kids, naturally relax and open up.

Sometimes I think we put all this pressure on ourselves as parents to create a rich and varied atmosphere for our kids so they will thrive on the challenge and ingenuity of the activity.  While some of that is important, I’m here to tell you it’s not the activity that matters, it’s the time spent together.  The things kids remember are the experiences with their parents, grandparents, and friends, regardless of the events those experiences were derived from.  Their memories fade of the carnival, the rides, and the treats, but they always make mention of that one time with Pops when they trimmed the trees together.  I truly enjoyed myself with my children today.  After laundry, we went to the post office, the farmers’s market, and the grocery store.  They assumed active roles at each stop, without me asking them to do a thing.  They took pleasure in completing their self-initiated tasks of shopping, checking things off lists, and price-checking.  They took time to window-shop at the farmer’s market for flowers and treats, and they welcomed the responsibility of affixing stamps to the envelopes before dropping them into the mailbox.  I looked at them not only as my children and my companions today, but also as dependable little people.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think they could almost function on their own!  

Kids like being useful and having purpose.  They’re proud of themselves when they learn something new, and most times they enjoy collaborating with others.  Interact with them outside of the formal activities we seem so anxious to plan for them, and you can see that for yourself.  Our kids are people who just want to be part of something, yet we tend to treat them as clients that we need to impress with celebration and sport.  They don’t need the royal treatment.  They just need some of your time.