Thursday, May 14, 2015

Raising Humans

Before I had kids, I never thought much about being a mother. Sure, I presumed I'd have a family one day, but that vague notion was as detailed as it got. Until I became pregnant. Then the tomboy in me kicked in.

I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly boys. I had one brother, and our three male cousins lived next door. When I was young, I saw us all as equals--kids who liked bikes, bugs, fishing and baseball. And at that age, I was right.

But when I became a teenager, everything changed. I was nothing like other girls. They wore makeup and flirted with boys and smoked and drank and knew things. I didn't know anything, especially about boys. Sure, I could put a worm on a hook for a boy or throw a football around with them, but that other stuff? Pfft. Clueless. Whoever passed out the "How To Be A Girl" manual definitely missed my mailbox.

So when I became pregnant, I realized that I desperately wanted to mother boys. Only boys. In fact, the idea of raising a girl was so foreign to me that I was in a bit of a panic. I'm the type of person who learns from experience. I didn't even know how to be a girl. How could I be successful in raising one? Even in my twenties, all my best friends were male. When I sat down to consider what skills I had to raise a girl, I came up with bupkis. I was completely ill-prepared for the task.

I got lucky and had sons. But I have friends who have both daughters and sons, and they tell me they are the opposite of me: completely comfortable raising their daughters and in foreign territory with their sons. Of course I can understand exactly what they mean. But I started thinking about what kind of mother I am that makes me more suited to raising boys over girls, and the only thing I felt strongly about was that I'm comfortable with who I am and confident in my convictions as an adult.

So? you might say. That doesn't sound gender-specific at all. And you'd be right. In fact, if anything I'm more girly now than I was when I was younger. I hate bugs and video games and sports (well, OK, not hockey). I love flowers and pretty shoes and sappy, romantic movies that make me cry and dressing up. These are not exactly traits I share with my boys. And when they want to go camping, I tell them to go talk to their father.

But here's what I figured out: I'm not my sons' friend, so it's OK if I don't share certain interests with them. I love them with all my heart and I'm here to teach them how to be confident, capable, respectable and self-sufficient. But I also want them to be compassionate, fair, tender and thoughtful. And the best way to do that is to teach by example. I set standards for their behavior and I live by those standards myself. I'm not hypocritical and I'm always willing to listen to their side of the argument. Don't those parenting skills cover both genders? I think so.

All this tells me is that I would probably have done alright raising a girl. Sure, I might have had to call in the experts for some things. But the stuff that matters? I've got that down. The rest, they'll figure out on their own just like I did. I'm not teaching them how to be men and I wouldn't have to teach a girl how to be a woman. That's biology and it will happen regardless of what type of parent I am. I'm raising humans. Sure, it would be nice to have someone to help me do my hair and nails and watch weepy movies with once in a while. But as long as my kids grow up to be respectful of others and their world, and they build lives that they're proud of, I'm OK watching chick flicks alone.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Puppy Inside

Today, I'm pretty sure I saw my dog longing for his lost youth. It's happened before, in encounters with younger, more vibrant dogs who want to jump, wrestle and play. These dogs always intrigue Bailey, but he's almost fifteen, so they also give him pause. It's as if he's thinking, "Man, I'd love to but I know I'd throw my back out."

Today, a neighbor dog who lives up the street came running through a nearby yard just as we finished our morning walk. Nash is about two or three years old, a mutt with insatiable energy who's always up for a game, a run or a belly rub.

I heard Nash before I spotted him. He came down through the trees, and I thought at first that perhaps he was a deer. Bailey's hearing has significantly diminished in the last year or two, but when we were half way up our driveway, he saw Nash and turned. To say he was riveted would be a gross understatement. Nash ran like a racehorse, down the street and back. He bounded into the woods and out again, approached Bailey with a 'hello' sniff, then crouched as if ready to wrestle. He wasn't even breathing heavily.

For a moment, Bailey went through the motions. He crouched as best as he could with his arthritic hips. His tail went up as if ready to have a go-round with Nash. He never took his eyes off the dog.

But when no play actually ensued, Nash grew bored and ran off down the street again, a flash of black and tan who'd be gone if you blinked. He stopped momentarily to smell the wet leaves, then heard his owner calling from up the block and took off back through the trees and up the hill.

When Bailey and I reached our deck and I told him to go around back as he always does, he stood and looked at me. I motioned for him to go on, thinking perhaps he hadn't heard me. But then he turned and looked across the street for a long moment, to the spot where Nash had just been running to and fro.  He let out a heavy breath, then loped up the deck toward the door and the bed that awaited him inside.

I'm starting to think Bailey is like the rest of us. As we feel the effects of aging come on bit by bit, we learn to adjust and live with them. We buy reading glasses, ask people to repeat themselves, turn up the volume on the television. This all works fine until we find ourselves somewhere with a younger bunch: those who can eat richer food, dance more freely, drink more wine. Then we sigh and hold hands, glad we're not alone, but a little sad for what we no longer have.

So I'm giving Bailey some extra love today. A bit of gravy in his bowl, lots of scratches and coos and calling him my puppy, the one I love most, my best boy. I don't even know if he can hear me. But in this warm, familiar setting he's known for years, I'll try to ease his heart. I can't give him back what he's lost. But I hope our love is enough to make up for it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Penny Pinched is A Penny Saved

I used to think I had one kid who was a reader and one who was a non-reader. My oldest, like me, has always been content to sit beside a pile of books for hours if left to himself. From the time he was a toddler, he'd sit devouring story after story, regardless of subject. He's gotten more discerning as he's aged, but reading is still a favorite pastime. In contrast, my younger son loved to be read *to* when he was little. Once he learned to read, though, he'd only be caught with a book if it was a homework assignment. Even then, reading seemed like a chore.

But I recently learned something about Ben and books. It's not that he doesn't like books; he's  just more selective of what he's willing to spend time reading. If it's funny, he's hooked. If the topic is one he loves, that's a definite selling point. And if he loves the subject *and* the book is funny? Good luck getting him to the dinner table. 

To help us get to this point, I've been taking my kids to the library since they were infants. First it was for the mommy-and-baby programs. When they got older, there were kids' programs, then teen clubs. But no matter how I got them there, we'd always, always bring home books. It's how we explored lots of different genres, authors and topics without forcing dad to build more bookshelves or breaking the bank. When it comes to books, a library card is a kid's first credit card. You want to take out ten books? No problem! You too? Just put it on the card.

This weekend, I glimpsed how this philosophy may have backfired, at least with Ben. I'm the type of person who will hear about a book, borrow it from the library and, if I love it and know I'll re-read it over and over, buy my own copy. Ben, however, seems to have a greater love of saving money than of owning great books. He recently discovered a series at the library. He read and laughed through the first two books, but the third wasn't available. Since he has accumulated several gift cards for Amazon.com, I suggested he buy all three books, as well as the next series by the same author, on the same topic. That way he could read them all, then read them again and again whenever he wanted. 

"But Mom, I can get them for free at the library."

"Yes, but if you use your gift cards and buy them, you can re-read them all whenever you want."

"I know but... I don't think I want to do that." 

He couldn't quite articulate his struggle. Did he love the books? Yes. Does he have plenty of gift cards? Yes. So what's the problem?

Ben loves money, even representations of money. Gift cards, coins from other countries, pretend credit cards, he loves it all. In fact, I think he loves it so much that to exchange it for something else, even if it's books that he know he'll enjoy, is just too hard.

At first I felt bad that he wasn't taking advantage of this opportunity to own some books he'd really love. But then I realized, that's what *I* like to do. The kid has a sense for the value of money, and a great understanding of the benefits of the public library. Considering both will take him far in life, I didn't push him to buy the books. It's his money and his decision on how to spend it. I've done my job and taught him these lessons. So why contradict myself when he's happy?

I couldn't think of a good reason either.