Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Santa Baby

Apparently, I am a bad parent and am depriving my children of an important part of their childhood because I am breaking the cardinal rule of the Christmas season: I have not taken my children to get their picture taken with Santa.

I've thought I've had some good reasons for not getting it done this year.  It's my husband's busiest time of the year.  I've thrown my back out twice and haven't been capable of standing in line at the mall.  Every member of my family has had their temperature exceed 101 degrees for at least part of the month, and I thought I was doing them - and the other families in the mall - a favor by not sending my kids out into the assembly line for a photo op.

Call me crazy.

And yet, when I think about it, I realize that I'm hearing this from the people who don't have small kids.  Who don't have dual income households.  The working parents are either enjoying a small moment of superiority for being able to cram the picture into their hectic schedules when I can't, or they're commiserating that they're in the same boat.

And they're all thanking me for keeping my germ-infested family away from theirs.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

School Days, School Days...

In many parts of the US, kids and adults are getting ready for the start of school. We have year-round schools here in North Carolina, so my boys have been in school for nearly a month. Last year, I had one son in kindergarten and one in preschool, but this year, they're both at the elementary school. We've had a chance to work through some of the challenges that come with the start of the school year. Since my illness makes my energy level unpredictable, it means that I need to plan, plan, plan to make sure that we're taking care of the kids regardless of how I feel each day. Some of the tricks that have made it easier for us...

Paper can be your family's friend - We started the year with a paper calendar that allowed us to see everything quickly at a glance. Each person had their own spot on the calendar for which we could write the specifics of their schedules. We could easily see who needed to wear tennis shoes for PE and who needed to take library books back to school.

But don't knock online options - I'm a big fan of Cozi ( I've played around with a few online calendars, and this one is the easiest one I've found for tracking and pulling up multiple schedules. Each family member has their own colors, so when I pull up my calendar on my phone, I can tell by the colored dots which family members are involved in which schedule items. It's easy to maintain on the computer and immediately syncs with my phone. In addition to calendars, I can put multiple shopping lists and To Do lists on the site and easily pull them up on my phone. It's great when I go shopping to just pull up my list on my phone...and if I forgot to charge my phone, then my husband can pull it up on his.

Don't take the weekends off - It's so easy to tune out over the weekend and not think about school (ask kids, they do it well). But a few minutes of planning on the weekends can make the week go so much more easily. Each weekend, I'll go over the school menu with my boys and find out which day they're packing lunches and which days they're buying. That way, I can plan my grocery list, and we don't have to argue about it each morning.

Speaking of buying lunch - Does your school offer an online option for paying for your kids' meals? If so, then I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity. My school uses an online account that alerts me when their balances fall below a preset level and offers me a quick and easy way to add money to the account whenever needed. It is so much easier than having to pull out cash in the mornings and have correct change or hoping they don't lose their money.

Get organized - It's so hard to keep up with all of the papers, etc. required for school. For us, a binder, a magazine rack and some file folders have been invaluable. We use the binder to keep the reference materials in one spot, so it's easy to find the school calendar, menus, handbooks, and classroom procedures. The magazine rack is the place we store the homework and projects that aren't due back the next day, library books, and homework supplies like pencils and crayons. Each child also has his own file folder so we can keep track of the classroom-specific information and papers.

Have extras in stock - Being the mom of two boys has taught me to accept that they will forget to bring things home every day. So we have a spare lunchbox, freezer packs, and water bottles on hand so that we aren't sidetracked by a child leaving lunch at school.

Follow a routine - There are certain things we need to do every day, and others that are done on particular days of the week. Documenting and following a routine makes it easier to keep up with all of those details.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday!

My older son turned 7 recently. Since I have a chronic illness that contributes to unpredictable fatigue, the birthday party can be quite a challenge. After all, a birthday party can be an elaborate affair...which would blow up completely if I were too worn out to execute it. And a birthday party is way to special to the guest of honor to blow it. My children's birthday parties have been quite successful because I've kept my priorities straight and incorporated a few tips that have kept my fatigue level from ruining the day.

Consider having the party away from home - We've been doing this for the past several parties, and it's turned out to be a major stress reliever. Instead of running around like crazy the days before the party trying to clean everything, getting upset at the kids if they pull things out of place, and facing a huge mess to clean up after the party's over, we've opted for the party away from the house. We don't have to spend our energy being human tornadoes cleaning up the place. The kids can be kids without worrying about hearing "I just cleaned that!" And cleanup is minimal or nonexistent. I still remember the joy I felt at Dylan's 4th birthday party when the Monkey Joe's staff came into the birthday room with vacuum cleaners. And while my kids were running around at the party, I wasn't worried about anything getting broken. It is so relaxing to walk into the house after the birthday party and realizing that it looks the same way it did when you left to go to the party.

Plus, having the party somewhere else can open the door for some cool themes. Dylan loves to cook, so we held his birthday party at a cooking studio for kids called Lil' Chef. We had the party in the morning so the kids could show up in their pajamas to make chocolate chip pancakes (one of Dylan's favorite meals) and have fun. You can go for an elaborate theme by having the party at a museum - which paleontologist-to-be Dylan also debated - or as simple as a pool party. It's easier than you may think to get ideas - surfing the internet or checking out local magazines can help a lot. Here in Raleigh, we have a free periodical available called Carolina Parent, and their website had a wealth of birthday party provider suggestions.

Partying outside? Watch the weather! - We just had a pool party for my 7 year old son Jason. The week before, I was reading every weather report I could find, just in case we ended up having storms rain on our, party. Fortunately, there was no chance of rain (and given the drought we're in, our weather reports would have mentioned ANY chance of rain), so we didn't need to think about contingency plans. But if the party's planned for outside, keep an eye on the weather...and make alternate plans if necessary.

Don't go overboard - We held our pool party mid-afternoon, so we didn't have to feed partygoers a meal. We just had cake, ice cream, lemonade, and sweet tea, and that was enough. The kids didn't want to spend their time sitting at a table, they wanted to spend it in the pool. We had the food available during a pool-mandated break time, but then let the kids get back to swimming.

And we didn't even go overboard with the cake, even though it looked like it. One of the area grocery stores does an amazing job decorating cakes, and the kids love the cakes that come from there. There's a binder with available patterns, and we order the cake during our regular grocery store visit to pick up the next week. When we brought the most recent cake home, my son repeatedly said, "I did a great job picking my cake," and parents and kids alike raved about it at our party.

Party favors - For our most recent party, I hit our local party store and went to town putting together goodie bags. I found all sorts of silly fun things for the kids - plastic flying disks, Chinese yo-yos, monster finger puppets, cheap beads, pencils - nothing fancy, just silly fun. The one rule that I followed was not to pick anything that made noise, and the parents expressed their appreciation.

Don't forget the thank-you notes! Birthday parties are a great opportunity to teach kids about expressing gratitude. Thank you notes are a great chance to remind children to let others know when they've done something nice. And for younger kids, it's a great chance for writing practice. For really small kids, there are pre-made thank you notes that only require the gift name and signature to be completed. They're available in all sorts of patterns (no surprise that we got dinosaurs) and turn thank you notes into an easy exercise for little ones. Older kids can work on writing sentences by putting together a simple note in an empty card.

This also brings up a good reminder for the parents of the gift givers - let us know who you are. At our latest party, two of the gifts were in plain blue bags with no card. Luckily, in the age of email, it's easy to find out whose gift is whose. I just sent an email to both moms and asked, since I wanted my son to be able to properly thank folks. Both quickly wrote back to let me know, and it gave me a chance to add on a thank you from me.

Parties are a great chance to give kids a special day, and it doesn't have to take a Herculean effort to pull it off - just some planning and focusing on what really matters.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dealing with Death

As parents, we know we have a lot to teach our children. Some of those lessons happen at times outside of our control. Teaching our children about death doesn't happen at a time of our choosing, it happens when dictated by nature. Last week, we faced that situation when my husband's grandmother died. We weren't the only ones dealing with our grief - we had to help our 5 and 6 year olds through this time as well.

Telling the kids - The most important thing to remember is to tell them that someone died and not get overly caught up in euphemisms. My husband sat them down and told them that their great-grandmother had died. He answered their questions, he comforted them, but he made sure that they understood that she was dead.

Let the emotions flow - We told and showed our kids that it's OK to be sad, and it's OK to cry when you're sad. We did not let ourselves get so caught up in our own feelings that we couldn't support them.

Be prepared for questions - Kids will have questions, and some of them will seem quite strange. Giving them clear and simple answers helped them to understand.

Different strokes for different folks - Everyone handles death differently, and kids are no exception. My older son understood what had happened. He cried and expressed sadness that he would never see his great-grandmother again. I'm not sure how much the younger son understands, and he's the one who had the stranger questions. For example, we had to explain to him a few times that dead people don't come back.

Enlist their teachers - Kids may behave differently for awhile after hearing this kind of news, and it helps the teachers to know what's going on so they're prepared to deal with the situation in a helpful way for the kids. I sent the teachers an email explaining that their great-grandmother had died and that they would be missing school later in the week for the funeral. I also gave them specifics about how their student had handled the news so that they would be prepared for situations that could arise during school. I told my older son's teachers that he was upset and had cried quite a bit, so he may be upset or crying at school. I told my younger son's teachers that he had been asking a lot of questions and may be talking a lot about life and death, so that they would understand if he brought the topics up during school. Teachers are very appreciative when we tell them about any major situations that come up for our kids, and death fits in that category.

Have reasonable expectations - I knew my children couldn't go to the viewing. They wouldn't be able to handle standing quietly for hours while their parents talked to people they didn't know. And neither of them would be able to handle seeing their great-grandmother in the coffin. We also sent the children to childcare during the funeral service instead of expecting them to sit through the service. Parents have to decide what their kids are ready to handle. These decisions can impact their children well past the funeral time and must not be taken lightly.

Death can be a traumatic experience if not handled properly. If parents handle the situation with compassion and patience, it can be a learning experience that can help children grow.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mind Your Manners

When I was pregnant the first time, the one thing that blew me away in those pregnancy books I devoured was just how much teaching I would have to undertake. The one thing that really stuck out was that children do not even understand the difference between day and night until the parents teach them. That's when I got a little freaked out (OK, a LOT freaked out) at the prospect of teaching all of these basics to my kids.

One of the areas I knew I'd need to focus on was manners. My parents have told me so many horror stories about the poor behavior they've noticed in public places and how poorly the parents have handled those acts of transgression. They felt sorry for the kids who didn't know any better and frustrated with the parents who weren't teaching the children the lessons they needed to know. Important note: Most of these stories were about how my relatives had transgressed, so I also saw the chance to get family brownie points by addressing this oversight in my own parenting. And even though I'm an adult, I am still prone to bouts of sibling rivalry.

Now, I'm the first one to confess that my children are not polite all of the time. There are times I look at them and wonder in which cage they left their clubs and am amazed they're even walking upright when they act like such neanderthals. But then I get a compliment from a stranger on how well they're behaving, or my parents ask to join us when we go out to eat (they obviously don't mind being seen in public with my rascals!), and a sense of rightness comes back over our environment. And the little moments, like when my son asks for a tissue "please" or my son thanks me for bringing him a glass of water, make my heart soar. When they behave well in public, my husband and I have a much more enjoyable time ourselves.

So how did we get to this point of relative sanity? It certainly didn't happen overnight!

Set an example - I want to have polite children? Then I need to be polite. Most importantly, I need to be polite to them. They imitate me at so many times that I don't want them to, so they might as well see some behaviors I'd like for them to imitate. When I want them to get me something, I'll make sure I say please. When they do something they've been asked to do, I thank them and express my appreciation. Not only does this remind them of the behavior, they learn how good it feels to be on the receiving end.

Reinforce positive behavior - Kids love being caught doing stuff right. It's such a boost for them to do something well and get caught doing it. So when my children use their polite manners, or someone else passes along a compliment on their manners, I share it with them. I'll get a huge smile from them when they receive the praise, and I can tell that it's taking root inside them. My kids thrive on compliments, and while I don't want to give them the mistaken impression they're the most perfect creatures to have ever walked the earth, I do want to make sure they know what they do well.

It's so simple too - when one asks if he could have a tissue please, I smile when I give him the tissue and thank him for asking so politely. If his brother is in earshot, I might throw in a quick comment like "I'm so proud of having boys with such terrific manners" to use it as a teaching moment for his brother too.

And when I get a compliment from someone else, I make sure to pass it on. I picked up a son from a birthday party, and the host made a point of telling me how wonderful his manners had been during the party. I smiled and thanked her for the compliment. When we got to the car, I hugged my son and told him I had to share something with him. I passed along the compliment and praised him for behaving so well at someone else's house. He had had fun at the party, but he was even happier after being praised.

Use slips as teaching moments, not punishing - They're not perfect. While they use excellent manners a lot of the time, they have their moments. They are still kids, after all. But when we parents react well to those moments, we can make them fewer and farther between.

We went out to eat recently, and the waitress didn't leave straws for the boys. When she came back to the table, my older son told her "you didn't leave us straws". After the waitress left the table, I quietly leaned over to my son to tell him he had not behaved politely. I told him it would have been better to say "could i have a straw please" because that would have been more polite. I also reminded him that he usually uses such wonderful manners, so I was surprised he hadn't used his good manners, and I would appreciate him using his good manners for the rest of the meal. He did. And when the waitress dropped off the check at the end of the meal, she heaped praise on the boys for their terrific behavior.

Polite kids don't happen overnight, but the efforts definitely pay off. I enjoy myself so much more in public because I don't have to worry about them being rude. The best payoff is for the kids, though. Other parents like having my kids around their kids because of their behavior, which means they'll be included in playdates and parties, and that friendships are more likely to be encouraged with their kids. That means more opportunities for fun and strong relationships for them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Going Green

Earth Day was a few days ago. As a mom, I think about stewardship of the earth and what kind of planet I'm leaving behind for my kids. I'm also thinking about what habits I'm teaching them and what example I'm setting for how to take care of our planet.

One of the biggest challenges I've had to deal with is my guilt. Since I have a chronic illness, there are a number of earth-saving tips that just won't work for me. For example, riding a bike instead of driving is completely impractical for me to do. But instead of throwing up my hands because I can't do everything, I'm focusing on what I can do. Besides, I don't know anyone who's life allows them to be completely green. While composting and biking are reasonable options for some, I just am not in the position to make those work in my world...and most parents I know feel the same way. But that doesn't mean we're completely off the hook, and there are some simple things that I can do that will make a difference.

Our Earth ( has a list of ways to be green, and some of these are easy to do regardless of how busy you are or whether you deal with physical challenges. Some of the easy recycling ideas - that stick out to me are:
- Reduce - I can save water by turning off the faucet while brushing my teeth. I can turn off lights when I leave a room to save electricity. I can opt out of catalogs and junk mail.
- Recycle - Does your community have a recycling program? If so, then recycle what you can instead of just pitching it in the trashcan. In addition to curbside recycling, my company encourages bringing in batteries and used printer cartridges.
- Buy Local - Support your local farmers and other local businesses by buying local when you can. The food's fresher and tastes better than something that's been trucked from who-knows-where. Check into Community Supported Agriculture programs and Farmer's Markets in your area. I'm lucky enough to have a CSA program at work, and I have farmers delivering to my office weekly to make it even easier for me to buy local. The CSA even connects me with an Angus beef farmer and seafood distributor, and the food is so much more delicious than what I can get from the store.

Another easy way for me to conserve is by using reusable grocery bags. The reusable bags hold more than those flimsy grocery store bags, and I don't have to worry about my bags breaking. There are so many different patterns and styles you can get. I have some that collapse down to easily fit in my purse for those impromptu shopping trips. I've also got a couple collapsed that I keep in my car, and I have more that I keep near the door so that I can be prepared anytime I go to the store. Some stores offer bonuses for bringing reusable bags, ranging from store rewards to a discounted bill to a donation to a local charity.

One of the best tips for responsible living is to cut the clutter. It's helpful for dealing with my multiple sclerosis (and my sanity in general!) to cut down on the excess stuff in your house. And one of the biggest challenges my kids add to the equation is all of their stuff. It seems like kids stuff breeds - one paper suddenly becomes twenty. That's one of the challenges I'm still trying to figure out how to handle - keeping children's clutter in check while letting kids be kids.


I am the mother of two boys, trying to balance family, work, and life with multiple sclerosis. While work and a chronic illness make it important for me to manage my life as efficiently as I can, I've realized that most of the issues I deal with are quite common for moms. Sure, I get tired and have to deal with illness...but all moms have to do that to differing degrees. The more I interact with other moms, the more I realize we're all dealing with the same stuff. I have a blog that focuses in on my life with MS, but as a mom, my experiences aren't fundamentally different from that of other moms.