Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Summer Vacation

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - My Summer Vacation - Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain was a first for me!
Summer vacation started this year with our kids hitting the road for ten days.  The bell rang through the school yard signaling summer vacation had started and within thirty minutes, my kids were packed up in the Camry and cruising down 65 on the way to my parents’ in Indiana.  It’s an annual trip that my 8-year-old has taken for the past few years to visit with her Gigi, and Pops and Granny Jan.  Last year my Texas nieces were added into the mix, making it even more of an adventure.  This year, my three-year-old was up for the journey as well, leaving my girlfriend and I alone.

Our plan for the time they were vacationing was to have no plans at all.  We hadn’t had one uninterrupted 24-hour-period without our kids in the last year, much less a span of ten days.  We decided we’d treat it with all the respect it was due.  When friends called to make plans for that week, we literally said, “Sorry, but we don’t want to have any plans.”  And we didn’t.  We wanted to do as we wanted to do, without having to go home for naptime or break for multiple bathroom breaks or be home early for dinner.
When an acquaintance asked us at the beginning of our children’s 10-day absence if we were going to miss them, we both gave emphatic “no’s”.

It’s not that we don’t love and adore our children, as we do.  We’re blessed and lucky not only to have such amazing little girls, but also to have such wonderful parents that are not only alive and able to love our kids, but also make a priority of spending quality time with them.  

“I’m sure you’ll have a great time,” our neighbors suggested, “but I’m sure it will be a double-edged sword as you’ll miss them after a day or two.”

“Nope,” I replied.  “We’ll be good.” 

“We’ll talk to you a few days into it and see if you still feel the same,” one friend challenged.

In my head I made note, “No you won’t, as we refuse to make plans so we won’t see you again before they come home.”

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - My Summer Vacation - sunrise at the lakefront Chicago
Sunrise was gorgeous at the lakefront
Four days into our time alone not only as a couple, but also as individuals without the responsibilities of children, we had only spoken to our kids once.  We skyped them to find the four cousins dressed in each other’s clothing.  The older girls had the little girls’ tiny clothes on and the little ones had the big girls’ longer clothes on.  They all wore panties on their heads as hats.  We said we loved them and signed off.
We didn’t miss them a bit.  We were happy to hear they were happy riding the tractor and playing in the sprinkler, but we had no qualms about their well-being.  We didn’t wonder if they were missing us or how they were sleeping or if they were being nice to one another.  We were too busy not caring.

“I couldn’t do it,” one mom confided over a morning workout.  “The idea sounds great but the reality would be more than I could bear being away from my children.”

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - My Summer Vacation - The Bean in Chicago
Drinks before visiting The Bean
I’m here to tell you that the reality is every bit as satisfying as the idea!  Margaritas on the patio of Cesar’s in the middle of the day completely overarched breaking up a catfight over who’s going to play on the Ipad.  Riding our bikes to church and then basking in the sand at the beach before stopping off for a mid-afternoon toddy beat out the weekly shopping trip at Aldi while waiting for CCD or kids choir practice to end.  Dinner downtown followed by an impromptu drag show completely won out over paying a babysitter and hurrying home by midnight.  Taking a morning run and going to the gym, all before a full day’s work completely trumped my usual workout of pushing one 45-pound child in a rusty jogging stroller while continuously yelling at my other older bike-riding child to slow down and wait for me before crossing the busy street.  Arising at quarter-till the crack of dawn to bike-ride to the beach, coffee in hand, to watch the sunrise did NOT pale in comparison to waking up in the middle of the night and rocking a sick child back to sleep.  Watching a complete movie, uninterrupted, even if it was Dolly Party and Queen Latifah in Joyful Noise, absolutely stomped on the notion of trying to fit in one episode of Nurse Jackie, watching a few minutes now, and the other half while the kids are taking a tub after dinner.  Taking a three-hour nap lying next to my partner did not suck in comparison to feeling guilty for closing my eyes for five minutes while counting to 100 five times , laying next to my youngest in her bed, waiting for her to fall asleep for her nap.  Attending the Gay Pride Parade at our leisure, and without inhibition, wholly rocked when considering the intense planning, preparation, and censure that normally goes into taking the kids to public celebrations of any sort in the city. 

I feel not an ounce of shame in languishing in the afterglow of 240 hours without my children.  I do not apologize for not missing them, but instead embracing the time together with my girlfriend, where we had not only a chance to enjoy each other’s complete sentences, but also to reconnect and love life together. 

Day 8 found us cleaning the house together.  As Katie was dusting off a family photo, she said, “I’m starting to miss the kids.  I’m about ready for them to come home.”  We definitely enjoyed our last few days together, but we also started mentally preparing for our return to the land of schedules, squabbles, and Cee Cee my Playmate.

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - My Summer Vacation - picture of my girls
The girls have been home for not even 48 hours, yet it’s already back to all kids, all the time.  And this is good.  But it’s even better that we’ve been able to throw in a little of the unscheduled, unplanned, meandering that Katie and I have grown accustomed to in the past week or so.  So what if the 6:00 dinner hour was replaced with a romp through the spray park today and the 8:30 sign-off for bed was interchanged with a sleepover with popcorn and a movie.  I’ll say the same thing about the schedule and routine this summer that I said about my kids being gone:  “I don’t miss them.”  Come September, I’ll be happy to have them back and welcome them with open arms, but for the summer, it’s time to love life together with my kids.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Hostess With the Mostest

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - The Hostess With the Mosteest - kids' elaborate birthday cake
Birthday Celebrations for our kids have reached a new level of absurdness. From the money spent, to the gifts given to the guests, to the elaborate event planning before the party, we parents we have lost complete perspective when it comes to kids parties.  Gone are the backyard birthday parties where kids have fun by playing whatever comes naturally to them at the moment, before a birthday cake is devoured on the porch, sometimes even without the need for a custom party plate.  Pin the Tail on the Donkey is all but a figment of our imaginations, as we watch our 4-year-old party guests dress up as fairies and then choose the outfit they want to take home as a party favor.  And forget about asking your child to actually choose a few friends of his own to invite to his party, as today we feel obligated to invite the whole class of kids, and often more!

When I lived in Texas, I thought maybe it was a geographical issue and that Southern people just spoil their kids with these crazy parties.  Over the five years we lived there, my daughter was invited to hair and fashion parties, Cheerleading parties, Little Chef parties, and Santa Sleighride parties.  The Grand Poohba, though, was the Cinderella party, where a three-year-old’s mother hosted a princess party for 30 kids and their parents, where a catered lunch was served on rented miniature kid-sized china, which was placeset on child-sized linened tables with matching chairs and each girl got her own princess cake with a miniature doll in the middle of the cake skirt.  The girls were instructed to wear princess gowns so their clothing would match the makeup artist’s masterpieces drawn on the children’s faces.  Of course the event was catered and photographed, as mid-way through the party, a real-life Cinderella arrived in a Pumpkin Coach drawn by a horse and took each girl for an individual ride around the neighborhood kingdom.  

I thought I had seen it all in Texas and had truly convinced myself when we moved back to Chicago that this type of excess didn’t exist in the Midwest where I had grown up.  I was proven wrong in baby steps.  The off-site craft-house parties for the whole class were mixed in with the house parties in the basement.  The museum parties didn’t seem so extravagant when wedged in-between the pizza parties where the birthday girl was allowed to invite one or two friends.  I was brought up to speed, though, when a fellow mom told me about her twins’ upcoming birthday beach party.  Anxious to hear about it as we had done a beach party a few years back for my daughter and 8 of her friends with a bucket of chicken and some dollar-store sand buckets, I was shocked to hear that the party had been for 200+ people!  She had provided lunch for all and toys for the 80-some kids.  After recovering from the staggering reality of the size of the party, I was able to ask why so many people for a kid’s party.

“Well, there are two of them,” she said in earnest.

God Bless you all for your creativity, hard work, and good intentions.  The sheer extravagance, though, whether it’s in quantity, quality, or monetary, is almost more than I can comprehend.  I worry about our children and what that immoderation says to them.  I worry about what effect the money spent on parties these days has on both our children, as well as on our fiscal responsibility as parents and citizens. 

I often wonder if it’s really the horrible economy that holds us back from living the American Dream or if it’s the sick need we have to overindulge our children. While a $500 Pump-It-Up party for a 6-year-old may be a drop in the bucket for a wage earner supporting a family of 4 on $250K per year, it could be the difference between a college-level class, a family mini-vacation or a new set of tires for the car for a wage-earner bringing in less than half as much.  Yet I tend to see most parents, regardless of earning potential, planning and executing the big parties.  I don’t know if it’s more about keeping up with the Jones’ or somehow thinking you’ll be a better received parent by your child if you give them huge elaborate parties.  Some parents just like big parties.  As long as I can remember, there have always been some parents who do it up big for parties.  It’s just that now it seems to be the norm, across all socioeconomic backgrounds.  I talked to a young mother recently, who was planning her child’s birthday party for family and friends at an off-site location.  She felt it completely acceptable to plan a paid party, even though the utilities are currently cut off in her home and she has no job to support her family. 

The biggest issue of all for me with the grandiose birthday festivities for kids, though, is the expectation you set for your child for future parties, which then equates into expectations for life.  If Johnny gets a $175 party at Chuck E Cheese for 20 of his closest friends at 7, what does he expect at 8?  Is it an extreme sports party or a sporting event?  As the birthday ages escalate, so do the child’s expectations of greatness for their parties.  By 10, it’s no longer a paint-ball party expectation, but a DJ’d dance party cruise on Lake Michigan.  How can you top that at 14….a limousine ride and VIP backstage passes at a popular concert for the birthday girl and her besties?  Pretty soon you’re spending a grand on a freakin’ birthday party for a kid!

A birthday party is meant to celebrate the day of a child’s birth.  I can’t imagine there’s much celebration going on with the parents who are responsible for planning, executing and crowd-controlling the elaborate birthday parties they’ve put together for their kids.  And the kids, although they're most likely having a blast, aren't necessarily feeling special or revered in the throws of people or activities.  The kids, no matter what they say or do, will be fine with any sort of recognition you provide for them, even if just a family dinner together or a special outing with a close friend.  They only way they won’t be happy with that is if you set them up to expect bigger and better.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The New Normal

Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - The New Normal - "But everybody does that stuff" comic
A friend and fellow mom was explaining to me today that she and her husband are going to put their condo up on the market as a short sale. As I was firing questions at her to try and uncover her motivation for doing what she was doing, she said to me that short sales are the new norm in residential home sales.  She was justifying her decision with the fact that everybody’s doing it.

Now I could debate the fact that short sales are in fact the norm in today’s home sales or I could question the proper use of words in her statement, as I believe she really meant that short sales are more prevalent today than they were some time ago.  The minutia doesn’t matter, though, as what I really want to point out, is that I wholeheartedly disagree with the fallback justification that if everybody else if doing it, it somehow makes it right.

It seems as if I hear this explanation all the time, sometimes even out of my own mouth.  A family member and her soon-to-be ex-husband told me matter-of-factly that of course they’re each already dating other people, even though they’re not divorced yet, as everybody does that nowadays.  My eight-year-old tells me she chases and bothers the boys at recess every day because that’s what all the other girls do.  My girlfriend tells me that the reason she performs the ritualistic hand movements during mass each week at church is because that’s just how everybody does it.  I’ve heard moms tell me that they had to buy their kids a certain pair of shoes or jeans because that’s what the popular kids wear these days.  Sometimes I even start to use the rationalization myself when trying to weed through the current political climate surrounding my own romantic relationship with another woman, thinking “surely Illinois and the country has to legalize gay marriage because other states and countries are doing it.”  

It’s not until I find myself explaining to my impressionable toddler that she can’t have a juice box for lunch every day at preschool just because all the other kids get one, that I truly believe my own phrase that it doesn’t make it right just because everyone’s doing it.  My preschooler presses me for answers.  She wants to know why.  

“But WHY can’t I have a juice box, when Evan, Sophie, and Jameson get one?”

“Because it’s extra sugar you don’t need, Maddy,” I explain.

“But WHY don’t I need sugar, Mama?” she asks.

“Because too much sugar makes you wired, then tired, then have no energy,” I reply.

“But why do I need energy?” she asks honestly.

“You need energy to run and play and learn and live,” I tell her.  Finally she is satisfied.

Because so-and-so is doing such-and-such is NEVER a reason to do something.  It’s a lazy man’s response to a question he doesn’t want to truly consider.  It’s what we say when we’re not comfortable with our own feelings on an issue, or when we’re afraid to voice our opinions or buck the system.  It’s what we use when we know there’s more than what meets the eye on a certain issue.  It’s what we tell ourselves when we’re trying to trick ourselves into believing our actions are truly the best response to a scenario.  

I am not suggesting we judge someone for decisions they make.  I’m also not suggesting any of these scenarios are in fact good, bad, or even register on my personal scale of accountability.  I’m simply suggesting that we stop using the excuse that the Jones’ are doing it, so it must be fine.  Take ownership of your choices by actually thinking them through and sticking with your guns, instead of jumping on the bandwagon with the new normal.  Back your decisions up with actual reasons.  Tell me you’ve considered the pros and cons of a short sale and that this solution best works for you.  Tell me your particular divorce is different than most, so it requires the creative approach you’re utilizing.  Tell me you chase the boys because you truly like the boys.  Tell me that you have no freakin’ idea why Catholics perform all the hand movements in mass.  Tell me you like to spoil your child, or tell me it’s none of my damn business!  But please, don’t tell me it’s because everybody is doing it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good The Bad and the Ugly- Stacy Snyder - Parentunplugged
Sometimes I don’t recognize the world we live in.  From a parenting perspective, I definitely don’t recognize much of today’s style from that of my youth.  From a business angle, I’m unfamiliar with today’s lackluckster principles when I compare them not only to what I used to expect as a consumer and now know is nonexistent, as well as the standards I would hold myself accountable to as an employee/contractor/someone who provides products or services.  And from a personal standpoint, I can’t for the life of me, understand why we communicate the way we do as friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances, regardless of how advanced technology is, as it seems like taking a step backward in regards to fostering relationships.  But if there’s one thing I’ve got a handle on, it is people.  People are easy.  They’re always the same, no matter what the current trend is.  There are good ones and there are bad ones.  The key to existing among them all is to know how to identify which is which and what to expect from each group.

The identification process seems like it should be easy.  The solid good and solid bad people are no brainers, even when you account for subjectivity, as they are constantly acting and speaking in ways that show their true colors.  We expect solid intentions, integrity, and honesty from good people.  The folks who give up their secular lives to serve God, those that consistently give of themselves for others, and those that are forever helping out and giving words of support and encouragement are usually batched into the GOOD side.  On the opposite end of the gamut is folks BAD to the core.  For these folks, we expect ill intent, deceit, and usually harm.  It usually goes that the people who rape, kill, steal, and spew hate are dead giveaways to being on the BAD end of the radar.  There’s a myriad of people in between.  This is where it gets murky.  

No matter what your predestined or learned character is, we all have the propensity to teeter from one side to the other from time to time.  In fact, I would say the vast majority of people appear like they’re stuck in this middle ground of good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things.  It seems like they’re almost the same.  I beg to differ, though.  I truly believe that most people, regardless of bad actions or words, have the best of intentions, and are therefore good.  However, identifying and acknowledging that small percentage of people you meet that are truly bad at heart, even though they’re posing as good folks, is paramount to your success in peacefully co-existing with them.

But how do you interpret those folks in the middle?  You do it by monitoring the consistency in their actions over time, and always circling back around to intention.  A good person who does bad things, no matter how often, usually can be cracked as a good egg by analyzing intention and overall ratio of good/bad actions.  If the endeavor is positive, even though the execution is not always on track with folks, odds are they’re just good peeps stumbling along the way of learning to demonstrate their true selves by way of their actions.  Over time, we usually subconsciously note that the number of good actions outweigh the bad in virtuous folks.  A bad person who does good things, however, can usually be debunked over time when the quantity of bad actions surpasses the number of good actions.  Again, intention must be considered, as well.  Was the action born out wicked intent?  Was it meant to produce harm?  If the answer is consistently or even just more often than not, yes, then you’ve come across a bad seed.

Now let me be clear: I can hang with and truly enjoy, as well as usually learn something, from just about anyone.  It’s stamped into my DNA to be able to talk to any scam artist, drug dealer, or party girl sitting next to me at a bar, gab with any drag queen or grand dad standing behind me in line at the grocery, or find a commonality with any Tiger Mom volunteering at school with me.  I do not discriminate; there’s room in my personal interaction spectrum for all.  I can usually find something positive in, and extract something noteworthy from, just about everyone I meet.  The people I allow into the inner folds of my family circle, though, have to be proven good stock.  

If you learn to identify the type of person you’re dealing with in every situation, and learn what to expect from each type of person, you can usually go mostly unscathed.  Luckily, for most of us this isn’t too difficult because naturally we try to surround ourselves with good people.  Even if you’ve done battle with, or been part of, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly in other periods of your life, as your kids start to grow up and recognize the difference between right and wrong and look to you as a role model, I think we all subconsciously start cleaning out our houses of acquaintance.  I’ve weeded out some of the obvious bad, held on longer than necessary to some of the questionable characters in my sphere, but eventually just came to a place where some of the old lot was grandfathered in, but anyone new gaining access to my family, through my friendship, must go through a rigorous test aimed at identifying decency.  My testing is not disguised…it’s similar to Glenda, The Good Witch, asking Dorothy, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” I say lay it out on the table.  It’s funny, because most people will tell you outright, if asked, what they’re all about.  Even if they don’t say the words, “I’m a good person” or “Watch out for me, I’m not a very good person,” they’ll unconsciously spell it out with their response.

Let’s be honest, though.  Most of us don’t ask people about their intentions.  Most of us use our perception of people, and that sometimes is comprised only of a first impression, to establish if someone falls above or below the decency line.  And we don’t usually consciously decide if someone is a good person or a bad person.  We just process that in the background of our brain and use it as a baseline to determine what to expect from that person in the future.  When you know what sort of people you’re dealing with and what sort of actions to expect from different types of people, it’s easy to work within the confines of probability.  In other words, the guys (or gals) that daily stalk our alleys, waiting for an unlocked back door or an open garage door as an opportunity for theft, they don’t stump me.  I am not hurt or surprised when our bikes get stolen, as I would expect thieves to steal anything they can get their hands on.  I do not judge, as I have no idea what said thief is dealing with at home, nor if he or she might truly need my bike more than I do, say as a sole mode of transportation.  But I surely wouldn’t ask them to housesit for me when I’m out of town.  Conversely, the neighborhood mom who always has time for a smile and a kind word of encouragement for anyone who crosses her path, even though she’s busy raising four kids, supporting an extended family, coaching the Special Olympics Team for her youngest special-needs child, all while waiting for her military husband to come back from serving his country overseas, I don’t question her impact on my family or society as a whole.  I know what I’m working with in both cases.

When you stick to what to you know and expect people to be who they are, it’s all good.  It’s when you expect different results from people, or even doubt the experience you’ve had with someone, that you tend to falter.  When you constantly wait for the tried and true husband to screw up, you’re looking for trouble.  When you keep expecting Sigourney Weaver to do the right thing in Working Girl, you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak.  Don’t expect the worst of good people just because you’re in a bad mood or overly suspect one day, and don’t let your guard down around folks proven to act on ill intent, no matter how much you want to think they’re turning over a new leaf.  I’ve been known to every so often re-question the results of my testing on people, thinking somehow the assessment was faulty even though I’ve time-trialed no less than ten times.  Luckily my kids are constantly pointing out the obvious.

“Your friend Jack is a flake, Mom, but he’s still a good person” or “Mom, why would you stay friends with someone who constantly hurts your feelings?  I know I wouldn’t.”

My kids really put it in perspective for me.  You see, we adults occasionally get confused when the good folks sometimes do bad things and the bad folks sometimes do good things.  We think it’s a deal-breaker, a side-switcher, a game-changer.  It’s not.  Kids know it’s not.  They can see right through people.  They gravitate toward good and cower from evil, similar to how animals instinctively do.  We adults have those primitive intuitions too, but we often let the ultra-fast pace of our lives and sometimes peer pressure dull our response to our instincts.   Follow your gut.  Consult your inner child for direction.  Do whatever you have to do.  But know who you’re dealing with at all times, and anticipate their actions and behavior.  You’ll simplify your life.