Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Mom Network

        It took me about a minute after hearing my sister-in-law's phone message to take action.  I needed a moment to process what she was saying, and to get my head around the changes it would make to my day.  You see, she was experiencing the "perfect storm" of the working mom:  your child is sick on a day that both you and your husband absolutely, positively, cannot stay home.  Where do you turn?
       Some of the most stressful memories of my early parenting days revolve around this very dilemma.  We didn't live near any family; not the ones you could turn to when your child is sick.  My husband, Raj, was mired in surgical residency.  Every sick day fell on me to figure out. 
       As irony (or fate?) would have it, in the days just prior to my sister-in-law's call, I had been working on my memoir of the time Raj was a resident, and had just finished revising the chapter on balancing kids with work.  I had just been looking at these words: 

When my kids are sick, which is always, I long for that kind of family involvement [I’m referring here to having parents or siblings nearby].  I have many wonderful friends, but most of them have their own kids and don’t want to share our germs, or they work themselves.  There is no substitute for family when things get ugly.
“Thank goodness my mom could watch my son today,” says a co-worker one day.  “He has a fever, so there was no way I could leave him at daycare.”
          A big green wave of jealousy washes over me.  I wish I had that kind of back up.  I need that kind of back up... I end up taking the kids to daycare even when it would be better to keep them home.  Unless they have a fever, or pus coming out of their eye, they go.  They spend their days sharing snotty, drooled on toys with other kids whose parents need them to be there, too.  The day care rooms sound like TB wards, little babies with chronic coughs, hacking away, germs flying.   

          So when I heard the words, "I wouldn't ask you if I didn't really need your help," I was happy to spring into action.  Finally, after all those times that I was the one scrambling, I was going to be able to be the one to help!  It was a wonderful feeling.  But the Mom Network didn't stop there.  With me an hour away, I would need someone to watch my own kids at the end of the school day.  So I reached out to another mom, my neighbor and friend who understands and always says, "yes" whenever I ask for help.  We need these people in our lives.  It's what makes the Mom Network so powerful.  Then, when her own son came home sick from school, my other sister-in-law stepped in to take the post.  It was a round-robin of care, the kind of "village" pulling together that we need to have more of in this world.  
        Needless to say, my day did not go as planned.  I had to cancel and reschedule some appointments.  I didn't get any writing done.  But I did something so much more important than anything I had previously scheduled:  I spent the day with a little man I love, holding him quietly and letting his little body rest and fight the illness that he technically could have taken to daycare and shared (i.e. no fever, the daycare deal-breaker!).  It was really special to have that time with him.  The best part was, I was finally paying into the network that I've withdrawn from so many times.  
      So, today, I'm feeling grateful for the Mom Network.  Sometimes you give, sometimes you take, and I don't know where I'd be without it!  For all who need help:  hang in there - we've got your back!  For all who've helped:  THANK YOU!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Unique Voices

     Two of my favorite recent middle grade reads feature main characters with unique outlooks on life.  
     In Wonder, by RJ Palachio, we meet August Pullman, who is navigating life from behind the mask of severe cranio-facial abnormalities.
     In Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, we're introduced to a Caitlin, a fiesty young girl with Asperger's Syndrome who is dealing with a tragic loss.  
     I appreciate both of these characters for their unique voices, and for bringing awareness and sensitivity to people living with conditions that are challenging, but enriching at the same time.
     Immediately after I finished Mockingbird, I began asking my friends who are parenting children with Asperger's Syndrome if they had read the book (none have yet).  I'm always so curious to know, did the author get this right?  The stories resonated with me, but I'm not there, on the front lines, entrenched in the day-to-day world of Apserger's Syndrome.  In fact, one of my friends had to point out (and has been so patient in trying to explain this to me) that her son actually has PDD-NOS, which is on the same "end" of the Autism Spectrum as Asperger's, but is in fact a different diagnosis altogether. 
     I would love to explore a character with unique challenges, but I have a great fear that I would "get it wrong" and offend the very people I was trying to illuminate.  In fact, I often feel like I'm "getting it wrong" in my everyday life as well.  
     That is why I really appreciated a recent article by Maria Lin:  7 Things You Don't Know about a Special Needs Parent.  I'm always trying to "know better and do better" by my friends who are parenting kids with special needs.  Even as write these words I'm thinking, "is that the way I'm supposed to say it?" I want to be helpful and encouraging, but a lot of the time I feel like a bumbling idiot. 
     "Your daughter didn't want to do the swim lesson?" I asked a woman sitting next to me on the pool sidelines.  Her daughter, playing nearby, looked close to my son's age, and there was plenty of room in the class.  
     "She'd love to," was the answer, "but they don't have the capacity to deal with her specifically."
     Blank stare; I'm not getting it.
     "She's blind."
     Panic-panic-panic- don't say anything stupid!
    I'm not exactly sure what my response was (I think I asked something like, "Are there other opportunities for her to swim if she wants to?").  I must not have screwed it up too badly, as I'm still friends with that woman today.  
     If I ever do write a main character with a disorder, syndrome, challenge, or special need, (again, wondering, which one is the 'right' word?) I hope I do them justice, highlighting the person they are and the uniqueness of their gifts.  It would be devastating to take on a job like that and screw it up.  
     I also hope I can do better in my everyday life.   In fact, in response to Ms.  Lin, here are:

9 Things Parents of Special Needs Kids Should Know About Me:
1.  I am ignorant.  I don't mean to be, I just am!  From the minute you got your child's diagnosis, you have probably spent hours reading everything ever written about their particular condition.  You have become an expert, while I have maybe heard of, or read a few magazine articles on, the topic.  I want to learn - please be patient and tell me what I need to know.  In the meantime....

2.  I am sorry!  I do not mean to offend you, ever.  But it happens.  I know first hand that it does. I say things that are insensitive, I stumble over my words, I stare too long, or I don't look closely enough.  Even when I'm honestly trying to be sensitive, I don't always do my best (see #1).  So, for the record, I'd like to say, "I'm sorry!"

3.  I am honored when you let me help with your child.  This is a big deal.  It means you trust me to do a really important and difficult thing.  I want to give you a break, and spending time with your child is probably the best education I can get.  So, thank you for sharing; it means a lot!

4.  I'm an idiot. (See #1 and #2).  Sometimes I complain about my typically developing kids in front of you, because as a mom, that's what I do.  You are my mom friend, and I forget that what I'm complaining about could be the very behavior you wish your child was able to exhibit.  (#2!)

5.  I think about you.  Even when I don't have the courage or time to call, please know I am thinking about you.  I am sending you prayers, good wishes, and positive vibes.  You're on my mind when I'm having bad days, and when I'm having good days.  I don't forget about your daily struggles, but I could definitely do a better job expressing it.

6.  I am impressed by you.  You are a dedicated, passionate advocate!  I admire your strength and determination.  I watch you going the extra mile for your child, again and again, and I learn how to be a better parent myself.  You rock!

7.  I want your child to succeed.  When you celebrate your child's milestones, I am cheering right alongside you!  I hope the best for your child, and I want to live in a world where they are accepted and cherished for who they are.  

8.  I want my kids to be friends with your kid.  Your child enriches my child's life.  Period.  Thank you for spending time with us, so my children won't be as (#1) as me when they grow up.

9.  I need to do better by you.  Thank you for informing me, educating me, and being patient with me.  I will try to be less boneheaded and more sensitive.  I need to be better about helping you on this journey:  you and your child deserve my best efforts!

Friends, please feel free to comment here or in person if I ever need to be "set right."  I want to learn!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Bravo: One For the Murphys

       We've all been there.  You can tell the moment you answer the door that this person is there to sell you something.  Usually magazines.  Sometimes new windows.  Or the deal of a lifetime on a lawn care system.  Almost always, I'm pretty militant about sending them on their way.  I don't even open the door, just shout a hearty, "NOT INTERESTED, THANK YOU!" and watch them fumble with their pamphlets as I move back into the safety of my house.
        But today was different.  For one thing, I was outside, weeding.  Nowhere to hide.  For another thing, the woman who approached me (for the record, yes - she was selling magazines) started with her life story instead of her sales pitch.  Or maybe that was her sales pitch.  Who knows.  But whatever it was, today was different.

        "I never thought I'd be going door to door," she told me, after introducing herself.  She said she was in a job training program through a nationwide organization (that much, I later confirmed, was legit).  
        "I'm working hard to finish this program and prove to the state that I am stable enough to get my kids back."  Uh-huh, okay, what are you selling, and how much is it going to cost me? Still, there was something in her eyes.  She looked so tired.  I stood up, brushed off my knees, and moved toward her.  Maybe her story was real, maybe not.  Without a door to shut between us, I figured the least I could do was make eye contact with her.
        Then she seemed to deviate from her script.  She told me she had recently been hospitalized after being beaten by her long-time boyfriend.  She kicks herself for not listening to her 12-year-old daughter who begged her to leave him.  And she was working hard to get her life in order so that she could get her kids out of the foster care system, where they'd been ever since the beating.

        This is where the hairs on my arms and neck stood up.  Sadly, I know this is not an uncommon story. However, the particular familiarity of it was freaking me out.  I felt like one of the characters in Lynda Mulally Hunt's newly published One For the Murphys (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books) was standing in my driveway and talking to me.  
         Here is an overview of the story (From Barnes and Noble, One For the Murphys):
        "A moving debut novel about a foster child learning to open her heart to a family's love.  Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she's blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong—until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She's not really a Murphy, but the gifts they've given her have opened up a new future."
        So yeah, my hair stood on end.  The book moved me, and I haven't stopped thinking about it's story and message.  In the story, Carley learns that you can lean on good people to help you in a bad situation.  Something about the similarity between Mullaly Hunt's tale and the one this woman was sharing with me made me listen to her, instead of brushing her off.  Maybe I'm a schmuck.  But just in case, when I went inside for my checkbook, I also picked up a signed copy of the book I had gotten at a recent Wellesley Books event.  I gave it to the woman, and wrote her daughter's name inside.  When I explained the premise of the book, the woman said she couldn't imagine how her daughter would feel reading it, knowing she is not alone.  
        Then she said, "I wish I had had a book like this, when I was young.  My brothers went to Gramma's, but I was too little, and went to foster care."  How would her life have been different if she'd had Gilly Hopkins (from Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins) as a childhood companion?  
        So maybe I'm a shmuck.  Or maybe there is a little girl out there who is hurting, scared, and confused, and will be able to read One for the Murphys and know she is not alone, and that good, caring people do exist, and sometimes they are all you need to get by.  
        Well done to Lynda Mulally Hunt for the perfectly paced writing in this fantastic novel.  The characters are real, flawed, and quirky, just like you and me.  I highly recommend this book for girls age 9-13, or anyone who loves a good hero story.  You will be enlightened and enriched.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Oatmeal Diaries

     Navigating mornings can be difficult when you have children.   This I knew.  For years, my mom friends and I have shared morning battle stories.  Parenting magazines love to publish "smooth our your morning routine" articles, with names like:  Ten tips to get organized and get going! 

     This is all old news to me.  I've done the organizing, I've got the routine down pat.  I thought I'd planned for every morning contingency, and that I could control the temperament of my home by having snacks and water packed the night before.  
     But that was before the oatmeal wars.

     Pre-teen angst has seeped into my well-laid plans.  Gulping, sobbing tears, and angry words over the status of a bowl of oatmeal have ambushed me and left me dazed and wounded.  After the school bus pulls away ("All hail the big yellow bus!")  I return to the kitchen to assess the damage. It looks like 5 grown men have just blown through the house, not two small children.  

     In desperation, I decide I need to go up the ranks for reinforcements.  I turn to my wise, name-sake aunt, who gives me this sage advice:

...don't change the oatmeal, as you can't win!  And mainly looking at it all these years later, I'd say, "relax and chuckle to yourself - and be glad you are not still that age! 

...All the old adages probably apply - like: pick your battles carefully - think before you act - do express your honest emotion - let her know you love HER, just NOT that behavior - beauty is as beauty does - etc.  

 She even shared some advice from the General, my gramma:

...I still remember Elvie saying to me - "Nancy, we are your family, the ones that love you more than anybody.  You are nice to all your friends, but we are the ones you should be nicest to!"  

     So, the oatmeal war rages on.  And every time I'm about to lose my temper, I say to myself, "It's not about the oatmeal!"

     Funny, I find myself saying that not just in the morning, but all. day. long.

     Best of  luck to all you out there battling your own morning wars.  Remember:  "It's not about the oatmeal!"

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Letting Go

     Letting go is not my strong suit.  For example, I'm still driving the first car I bought with my own money.  Now, I'm not a car person.  I never have been.  The main thing I like about my current car is that it starts every time, and fills up for about $30 a gallon, (something I do every three weeks or so). So, we've got a low-maintenance synergy thing going on, and it's been working.

     But lately...I've been wondering.  What do heated leather seats feel like?  How would it be to not fret every time it snows?  Is it time to sign the Do Not Resuscitate order?
     "Mom, your car smells funny," says my daughter one day (as she was eating and dropping popcorn in equal amounts in the back seat).  
     "I know," I say, "but it's the car I brought you home from the hospital in!"

     "Mom, your car is so small," says my son, complaining that I cannot take his friend home with us from a birthday party.
     "I know," I say, "but we can fit into almost any parking spot!"

     The fact that money does not grow on trees aside, I wonder why I'm so attached to this little, smelly vehicle.  
     I wonder the same thing about a little picture book manuscript that has been traveling around with me for two years.  After it's 12th revision and 5th rejection, it's starting to get a little smelly.  

     "Not everything gets published," says one of my critique group members.
     I know, but it's the story that started me on this path, I think.
     "Maybe you could re-work this for a parent's magazine," says an editor.
     I know, but if I could just (grunt) make it (grunt) fit (grunt) here, I think.

     I know there is a difference between giving up and letting go.  But I worry: if I let go of this manuscript, am I giving up on my dream?  And if I let go of this old car, am I giving up my link to the younger me, that part of my life that could still be called 'new' (new job, new mother, new wife)...?  

     Maybe I'll take that manuscript out for just one more spin before I admit to myself that the silence I'm hearing is the "click" of an ignition failure.  If I can get past this, I bet I'll love those leather seats!


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Idea Machine

       It's National Picture Book Writing Week!  NaPiBoWriWee was created by Paula Yoo four years ago as a way to motivate herself and to help market a new book she had coming out.  The concept is to challenge yourself to write 7 picture books in 7 days.  You "sign up" by visiting Paula's blog and sharing comments with others who have committed to being productive this week.  This is NOT about writing a polished, publishable manuscript.  That would be impossible.  What's encouraged is to try to get seven manuscripts down onto the page; ideas you can then spend the rest of the year revising and polishing.  So far I'm "one for one," and am looking forward to seeing what happens on days 2-7!
       I met a woman a few years ago who had an idea for a picture book but never wrote it down.  When I asked her why, she said frankly that it was because she was afraid this was her one and only idea, and she was nervous that once she let this one idea go, (by writing it down), she'd be lost.

       What I have found, however, is the more time I allow myself to be creative, the more my brain gets 'in that mode' and starts cranking things out.  Sometimes I'd actually like to shut the idea machine off, so I can get a good night's rest, for example, or drive from point A to point B without having to speak into my voice recorder.  My nightstand used to be littered with scraps of paper, until I finally had the bright idea to just leave a notebook there.  Sometimes jotting down a few words will quiet the machine, sometimes I have to fully wake up and write for awhile before the brain settles down.  

       In preparation for NaPiBoWriWee, you can take notes, make outlines, and otherwise prepare for the task.  Last week, I sat down with a long thin piece of scrap paper and before I even had a chance to filter them, four topics spilled onto the page.  I've been so focused on revision lately that I didn't realize how anxious my brain was to get those ideas out.  This week is like a little mini-vacation from what I consider the hardest work of writing (revision).  I'll enjoy allowing myself time to focus on the fun part - starting a story and letting the fingers fly!
       If you are reading this and you've always had an idea for a picture book, or any book, this is your time!  Use NaPiBoWriWee as an excuse to stop making excuses! Write it down! But be careful - you may wake up the idea machine.  Don't say I didn't warn you.