Sometimes the Sidelines are Best

www.melindawentzel.comTwo years ago my kids swam like stones. Stones both dense and unwieldy in nature. Stones destined for the bottoms of lakes and ponds and pools. And yet, there was an uncanny barnacle-ness about them as well (i.e. they desperately clung to whatever floatation device or seemingly tallish torso that happened to be handy—namely my husband’s or mine). Said buoyancy-challenged individuals were largely comfortable in swimming pools, so long as we stayed in the shallow end and refrained from making any sort of unreasonable requests—like suggesting they loosen their death grips around our necks. Heaven forbid I tuck my hand beneath their bellies and let them kick and flop around in the water like everyone else on the planet.

That said, I’m not entirely sure that my kids even wanted to learn how to swim. Life was perfectly perfect coiled inextricably around someone’s head, neck and shoulders, their smallish bodies submerged just enough to enjoy a taste of refreshing coolness, while a goodly portion remained above the water’s surface, safe and sound from the abyss below.

For a time (read: an obscenely large chunk of our children’s lives), we allowed such an idiotic practice to continue, doing our level best to enable them and to accept the Island of Dependency we had inadvertently become. Of course, we fully expected a miracle to befall us. A miracle that would effectively save us from ourselves. Out of the blue, our charges would suddenly abandon their fears and start swimming like fish or, more correctly, like porpoises, plunging headlong into the murky depths in search of silvery prizes and whatever else they felt inclined to fetch from the deck of the Titanic. Through osmosis, our aquatic wonders would absorb every speck of knowledge and skill I had acquired as a lifeguard, and then some. They’d even be strangely adept at twirling whistles around their fingers and hauling greased watermelons across vast stretches of open water—talents that smack of impressiveness but have yet to be deemed useful.

But it was not to be. Eventually my husband and I faced the cold, hard truth. Hopes and dreams didn’t make good swimmers. Lessons did. Lessons involving a lot of hard work, a boatload of skilled instructors from whom praise flowed endlessly and a vat of courage—mostly of the parental variety. That said, it takes superhuman strength and nerves of steel to idly sit back and watch one’s beloved progeny flap and flounder as he or she goes about the important business of learning how to swim. It’s true: Kids panic. Kids swallow a disturbing amount of water. Kids stare at you from the deep end with horrified expressions of “How COULD you?!” and “Are you really my mother?!”

Not surprisingly, parents twist and turn uncomfortably in their seats, wearing nervous smiles and attempting to chat casually. Yet deep inside, awash with guilt and filled with doubt, they harbor pure and unadulterated torment. Or maybe that was just me, squirming in my lawn chair in a futile attempt to silence the voices in my head that relentlessly screamed, “Your child is DROWNING for Crissakes! And all you can do is swat flies and admire your tanned toes?! What kind of parent are you anyway?!” More than anything I felt helpless—completely beside myself with the idea of being on the sidelines.

And yet, that was where I needed to be—the place where I was, in fact, most effective. I needed to have faith in the process, faith in the instructors and faith in my children’s ability to succeed—in spite of the dearth of achievement I had witnessed thus far. And succeed they did. They’ve ditched the semblance of stones and barnacles for good and have since transformed into more guppy-like creatures, completely thrilled with their newfound ability to swim, “…even in the deep end, Mom!”

Aside from seeing actual results in the pool, I know this much is true because we’ve progressed from comments like, “I hope you know this is PURE TORTURE, Mom!” to “Can’t you just LEAVE ME HERE so I could SWIM ALL DAY, EVERYDAY?!”

Yep. Sometimes the sidelines are best.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (on the sidelines).

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Trenches of Parentville

Seven Things Parenthood Has Taught Me

www.melindawentzel.comI’ve been a parent for some 8,734 days. A stunningly imperfect parent, I hasten to add. During that period of time I learned more about sleep deprivation, sibling rivalry and teen angst than I previously considered humanly possible. However, the past decade has proven to be particularly edifying. Indeed, Thing One and Thing Two (my ten-year-old twin daughters) have provided me with a veritable feast of enlightenment. So, in the spirit of welcoming my next decade as a parent (and the vat of enlightenment sure to come), I thought it might be fitting to recap what the last 10 years have taught me—at least from the perspective of a stunningly imperfect parent.

  • 1) Beauty is likely in the kitchen. Translation: Most of the masterpieces I’ve collected thus far in my parenting journey are proudly displayed upon my refrigerator, where I suspect they will remain for a very long time to come. That is not to say the face of the fridge is the only canvas upon which said prized artwork hangs in all its faded glory. My home is quite literally inundated with the fledgling, Picasso-esque efforts of my brood, serving as a constant reminder of their boundless generosity and artsy flair. As it should be, I suppose.
  • 2) The word “sleepover” is a misnomer. No one actually sleeps at a sleepover—including the pitiable adults charged with the impossible duty of entertaining the gaggle of impressionable youths in attendance. Furthermore, the later slumber partygoers appear to crash, the earlier they will rise, demanding bacon and eggs. Moreover, it is inevitable that someone’s personal effects (i.e. an unclaimed pair of underpants, a lone sweat sock, an irreplaceable stuffed animal) will be tragically lost—only to surface months later in the oddest of places.
  • 3) When taken out of context, that-which-parents-say-and-do is often appalling. Case in point: “Stop licking the dog.” “If you’re going to ride your scooter in the house, wear a damn helmet.” “Fight nice.” In a similar vein, I’ve fed my charges dinner and/or dessert in a bathtub more times than I’d care to admit, I’ve used a shameful quantity of saliva to clean smudges off faces, I’ve suggested a broad range of inappropriate responses to being bullied and I consider the unabashed bribe to be one of my most effective parenting tools.
  • 4) On average, we parents spend an ungodly amount of time reading aloud books that we find unbearably tedious. We say unforgivably vile things about the so-called “new math” and, as a matter of course, we become unhinged by science projects and whatnot—especially those that require mad dashes to the craft store at all hours of the day and night in search of more paint, more modeling clay and perhaps a small team of marriage counselors.
  • 5) Forget wedding day jitters, the parent/teacher conference is among the most stressful experiences in life—not to be confused with the anxiety-infused telephone call from the school nurse and that interminable lapse of time wedged between not knowing what’s wrong with one’s child and finding out.
  • 6) A captive audience is the very best sort of audience. That said, some of the most enlightening conversations between parent and child occur when the likelihood of escape is at a minimum (i.e. at the dinner table, in a church pew, en route to the umpteenth sporting event/practice session/music lesson, within the confines of the ever-popular ER). Similarly, the discovery of a teensy-tiny wad of paper—one that has been painstakingly folded and carefully tucked within a pocket, wedged beneath a pillow or hidden inside dresser drawer—is akin to being granted psychic powers. Everything a parent needs to know about their child will likely be scrawled upon said scrap of paper.
  • 7) Unanswerable questions never die—they simply migrate to more fertile regions of our homes where they mutate into hideous manifestations of their original forms, leaving us wringing our hands and damning our inadequate selves.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (getting schooled as we speak). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom. The content of this article, as it appears here, was previously published in the Khaleej Times.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Trenches of Parentville

Juneuary

www.melindawentzel.comI love this time of the school year, as we straddle the delectable months of May and June—quite literally on the cusp of summer. Translation: The celebrated death of structure is nigh and I can almost taste the deliverance from order and obligation—especially as it relates to parenting a pair of wily fifth graders. Far and away, it’s my favorite wedge of weeks on the academic calendar; although September’s nice, too, with its bustling fleets of bright, yellow school buses, towers of textbooks and freshly sharpened pencils. Trendy backpacks and lunchboxes abound, too. Everything, it seems, is awash with newness come September, just as it was so very long ago when I headed back to grade school with the swarming masses.

But the present chunk of time is downright edible—a delicious string of days that meld together like the final pages of a good book. Needless to say, the sundrenched afternoons and scrumptious evenings filled with games of tag and the ever-present thrum of crickets woo me into thinking that nothing on earth could possibly be better—except maybe a moratorium on homework, which is pretty much what we’ve been granted of late. That said, there is no substitute for this season’s splendor—and the fireflies we are eager to chase at dusk. Nor is there any match for the grand finale my kids revere more than life itself (i.e. the culmination of school, with its patented swirl of delirium-inducing celebrations and jammed-to-capacity schedule of events). Indeed, it is a frenzied cluster of weeks that threatens to claim my sanity, but it passes all too quickly and I find myself pining for more.

If I had my druthers, another thirty-day chunk of time would be sandwiched between the fifth and sixth months, infusing the school calendar with that which is righteous and good (namely, science projects that don’t necessitate the summoning of a marriage counselor, sports schedules that are very nearly practicable and weather forecasts that typically include blue skies and balmy temperatures). Juneuary, I’d call it. Of course, it would contain a perfectly frivolous holiday during which people would pause for three consecutive days to pay homage to squirt guns or pet toads. Possibly both. You’re welcome, said the maniacal visionary and curator of whimsy.

Alas, there is no Juneuary, and a mere handful of days remain in my children’s school calendar—a woeful reality that is, of course, punctuated by the fact that this week will officially end their grade school years. That said, my brood is poised to enter middle school in the fall—where the likelihood of being trampled by a herd of eighth graders is nearly equivalent to that of being stuffed inside a locker (incidentally, a locker that no one will figure out how to reliably lock and unlock without divine intervention and/or the acquisition of at least one superpower).

Never mind the inevitability that I will fail to locate their classrooms on Back to School Night, at which time I will surely forego the opportunity to meet their new teachers because I’ll be too busy wandering aimlessly through the labyrinth of hallways that appear disturbingly similar. Make that COMPLETELY INDISTINGUISHABLE, except for the smallish numbers printed near the doors that I may or may not fully discern, given the addled state I expect to be in at that time.

Maybe I should just stow my kids somewhere in the bowels of the elementary school for the summer, so they might stay a bit longer, tethered to the people and things they know best. A place where an embarrassment of items were lost and subsequently found (read: library books, lunch money, a certain someone’s clarinet, eleventy-seven sweatshirts, a beloved rock and an errantly placed baby tooth). A place where scrapes were tended to, psyches were nurtured and curiosities were fed since the early days of kindergarten. A soft spot to land these past six years—a refuge that has made all the difference this June.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (searching desperately for the pause button).

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Trenches of Parentville

From There to Here

9781532071621_pap_FQA.inddJust a moment ago, my children were kindergarteners—spindly creatures with wee arms, knobby knees and tinny voices. I remember well our maiden voyage to the school’s Open House one afternoon late in August—to the shores of Mrs. Morehart’s classroom, a warm and welcoming place at the end of the hall where my husband and I, like everyone else, crammed our oversized frames into impossibly small chairs eager to consume all that a parent of a kindergartener could possibly need to know about the year ahead. There was talk of cubbies and snow boots, art smocks and mittens. Bus schedules. Lunch lines. Recess and snacks.

Together, with our knees awkwardly pressed to our chests and our irrational fears lurking just beneath the surface, we learned about the magical nature of story time, the Puppet Lady who would come to call, the wealth of educational experiences our children were slated to have and, of course, the vastly important assurance of bathroom proximity. God knows how dearly we valued that. In any event, our concerns were adequately addressed as a collective sigh of relief wafted over the cozy grove of Lilliputian-inspired tables that filled the room and the brightly colored whateverness with which said room was adorned.

Indeed, Mrs. Morehart was a woman with whom we became enamored almost instantly. Her classroom promised to be a venue where impressionable minds would be nourished, creativity and curiosity would be duly celebrated and respect for others, as well as oneself, would be cultivated above all else. What’s more, surnames and bus numbers would be indelibly imprinted upon the forehead of each and every five-year-old and the aforementioned godsend-of-an-educator would refrain from passing judgment on those who were wholly incapable of enforcing bedtimes as well as those who might be inclined to serve dinner in the bathtub on a school night (to, of course, remedy the not-getting-the-kids-to-bed-at-a-reasonable-hour problem).

In truth, no one’s forehead was defiled in the plan to distinguish students or to ensure that the right child got on the right bus at dismissal. In any event, the curators of our precious cargo did, indeed, coordinate the logistics of transportation (and practically every other aspect of child management) seamlessly and with great aplomb. That said, the Land of Kindergarten was a place we parents could feel genuinely good about leaving our charges.

Never mind the wave of apprehension that literally consumed me the following week, when that big, yellow beast-of-a-school-bus groaned to a halt in my street and a certain couple of somebodies were expected to board and then traverse the uncertain path that would come to define their lives as kindergarteners—without me. Needless to say, a great deal of time has passed since then—despite the fact that it feels like mere seconds ago that I sat in one of those tiny plastic chairs, a red one I think, fretting over the exceedingly remote possibility that my children would be trampled by a herd of Converse-wearing, backpack-toting third graders or, tragically, mauled by a rogue pencil sharpener.

Thing One and Thing Two are worldly fifth graders now—not-so-spindly creatures who positively thrive on the thrum of activity present in their school day. No longer are they overwhelmed by long lines in the cafeteria, the deafening roar of eco-friendly electric hand dryers in the restrooms or an oncoming herd of third graders for that matter. They know practically every nook and cranny of their beloved school—where favorite library books can be found, which teachers have a debilitating affinity for chocolate chip cookies and, not surprisingly, how to efficiently navigate to the nurse’s office from virtually anywhere in the building. What’s more, they’ve learned how to deal with unwieldy band instruments, lost book fair money and, occasionally, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

In that respect—yet ever so reluctantly—I acknowledge the vast chasm that exists between then and now, there and here, even though it has felt so completely fleeting.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom. The content of this article, as it appears here, was previously published in the Khaleej Times.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Trenches of Parentville

Worms Fail Me

www.melindawentzel.comThere is a routine by which my children leave the house each school day. It is a fairly logical succession of events that usually culminates with a mad dash to the bus stop, backpacks and jackets flapping as they run, their unruly manes trailing behind them. Of all the memories of motherhood I am sure to harvest, the one that features their early morning race across the lawn, a blur of gangly legs and unbridled enthusiasm, will be a favorite. It is likely, too, that I will remember the many times they paused in the street, still blackened and slick from the unending rains of spring, to rescue untold numbers of earthworms from what would appear to be certain death (i.e. either from being drowned right there on the pavement or crushed by the bus that would soon round the bend).

Quickly, yet gingerly, they scoop them up and place them where it is safe, pleased to have made a difference in a small yet meaningful way. And as I witness this determined albeit futile effort to “…rescue them all, Mom,” morning after morning I am moved, inspired almost, to join in their worthy deeds. Of course, it would be cruel to utter the obvious truth: “You can’t possibly save them all.” So instead I bite my tongue and agree that worms, too, have a purpose. “They aerate and enrich the soil, Mom.” Again I am reminded of the exuberance of youth and of the remarkable capacity children have for storing data sure to wow me. A decade from now, if either of them announces a plan to become somehow involved in a lifelong pursuit to save beached whales, I will not be surprised. Nor will I be disappointed.

At any rate, it goes without saying that worms lack the ability to communicate their needs and desires—no matter how compelling or dire they might be. Granted, they couldn’t deliver any sort of message that anyone could ever hope to interpret. Crazy as it sounds, there are times that I can relate to such hapless creatures—especially as I struggle to connect with my brood via meaningful discourse. Indeed, sometimes words fail me—when weighty subjects arise, when unanswerable questions surface, when reflective listening falls flat, when my children’s growing allegiance to privacy begins to rear its ugly head. But since June is Effective Communications Month, I am determined to improve the way in which we connect over the stuff that matters—as well as the stuff that doesn’t particularly.

For starters (and as completely simplistic as it sounds), I’ve made a solemn pledge to find time on a daily basis to engage each of my daughters in conversation—to stop whatever it is I happen to be doing and tune in to their respective worlds. To find out who has a crush on whom, which item on the lunch menu is to die for these days and just how many collectible rocks it truly takes to be complete. (The jury is still out on that one). For my oldest, my curiosities would be more akin to: Which DC restaurant is her new fave, what, exactly, does one do with a graphic design degree anyway and when (oh when) will the boyfriend be getting a haircut? And although I make light of it here, I understand how important it is to have these conversations with my children. Somehow over the last decade or so I’ve allowed life’s harried pace to take precedence over bonding in this manner—even over the seemingly insignificant happenings of life. That is precisely what I wish to change.

So aside from vowing to carve out more one-on-one time with my co-ed daughter (who is still away at college), I plan to call more and text more. Thank God for unlimited texting plans. Strangely enough, I suspect I’ll even utilize our live video messaging system on a more regular basis—a concept I never once imagined myself embracing.

As for my two youngest charges, I’ve taken a big step forward on the path to opening the lines of communication by purchasing each of them Just Between Us: A No-Stress, No-Rules Journal for Girls and Their Mothers by Meredith and Sofie Jacobs (Chronicle Books). So in addition to the aforementioned one-on-one time, we now have this wonderfully interactive, perfectly confidential, writing prompt-infused means of communicating with one another—a tool that encourages us to “talk” about everything from boys and bands to wishes and worries, all within the confines of a tangible journal that we conveniently pass back and forth. Of course, it doesn’t replace or devalue our customary method of conversing, but instead offers another, perhaps deeper, layer of connecting—which is a good thing.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (where worms, I mean words sometimes fail me).

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

Comments Off on Worms Fail Me

Filed under In the Trenches of Parentville