She caught my eye immediately. With chunky, dimpled thighs that shook when she walked, she held her father’s hand and tried to keep up as they looked for an empty chair near the pool. She couldn’t have been older than three years old. Her hot pink ruffled bathing suit fluttered with each step as she cautiously eyed the water, now bustling with many noisy children enjoying a post-dinner, pre-bedtime swim. She stayed very close to her father. She was wary, and maybe a bit worried too. But her older sister, maybe eleven or twelve, was already jumping into the pool. She clearly did not need her father anymore. My gaze went back to the little one. I was reminded of how M was that age when we started visiting this special place every year. I was jolted by the knowledge of how far we’ve come since then.
That was the scene in the clubhouse pool where we were on vacation two weeks ago. My husband, M, and I were already swimming when I took this all in. My mind drifted, as it has a tendency to do when in a room full of people I do not know. It dawned on me that, when in a place with other families with children of various ages, my eye always drifts towards the children who are younger than my own daughter (who’s just two months shy of seven). I almost never seem to watch the children who are immersed in the tween and teenage years.
Why is that?, I wondered.
It’s not baby lust. No, I settled that account long ago.
I’ve pondered this over the past few nights. I think it’s because it gives me some perspective, if not relief, to see how far we’ve come from those truly challenging first years. There’s no doubt that there’s now less of a physical toll taken each day, what with all the lifting and carrying that must be done at the start. The unexpected, unpredictable pendulum swings of emotion have largely evened out, for both her and me. I can see that we’ve survived so much, and intact at that. If raising a child were like being in Girl Scouts, I feel like I would have earned the lion’s share of patches by now. There really aren’t too many patches left, though they are arguably going to be the most difficult to endure and acquire.
But it’s more than these things. By looking at our past through the lens of other younger children, I feel like I can appreciate the now of where we are this very moment. I appreciate that she still sidles up next to me for a snuggle or a book, though her body much leaner, more limber now. I appreciate that she still wants to hold my hand but doesn’t have to run to keep up. I appreciate that she sometimes needs help sorting through the tangled knots of understanding friendships or fractions but has enough confidence in herself to figure it out alone much of the time now. I appreciate that her silly, pumpkin smile flashes often and without abandon.
Above all, I feel like I appreciate the relative slowness of time passing right this very moment. It’s much like the hazy, humid days of summer, when you’ve got your feet in the kiddie pool and a lemonade in your hand. You don’t have to move. Everything you need is right in front of you, and the day takes forever to pass. That’s what this age feels like to me. It’s calm and balmy. The air is sticky and sweet. It’s not stormy and unpredictable like the toddler and teenage years.
I think that’s why I am almost fearful of looking at the children older than my daughter. I don’t want to see the blank stares and shoulder shrugs they give their parents. I don’t want to see the almost total lack of physical contact or desire for affection on the part of those children. I don’t want to see the failed attempts at understanding one another. I don’t want to see tempo of time tick faster as it seems to do after children reach a certain age.
Is this turning a blind eye my denial that these years are coming? Perhaps a little bit. But more than that I think it’s an overwhelming appreciation for right now. How good it is right this very moment with a child who can do so much independently and yet who still needs . . . no, wants . . . my guidance, wisdom, and insight. How good it is with a child who is comfortable in her own skin, whether she’s by my side or not.
I’m standing in a very magical place right now, and I know it. A lovely, long plateau—I think, I hope—if you will. There is a sweetness and innocence in the air around me. The light is beautiful from where I stand. I can see clearly in all directions, both from where I’ve come and where I’m likely to go. But for me, I realize that the view at my feet and of the footsteps behind me allow for so much gratitude, perhaps more than the uncharted trails ahead.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Today is M’s last day of Kindergarten, and a half day at that. The school year has been in wind down mode since about two weeks ago, what with a class walk to the ice cream shop and lots of outdoor time to pass the days and all. You can sense the anticipation of summer break among the children, their teachers, and the parents. We are more than ready.
I could talk about the things she learned in the classroom this year, like how to read or add and subtract numbers. I could talk about the physical changes that she underwent over the past 9+ months, like losing eight teeth in the span of five weeks (oh my, that was rough!) or growing almost three inches and one shoe size. I still can’t believe I have a child that weighs 50 pounds. I could talk about the new territory of budding (and flailing) friendships or socializing with many more kinds of kids than she’s ever had to prior to Kindergarten.
Yes, Kindergarten and being six years old offers much time for exposure, experience, and excitement. But those are actually not the important takeaways, at least for me, from this year of Kindergarten life.
No, the most important, impressive thing I’ve seen took place on the monkey bars.
I’ve watched this little girl go from barely being confident enough to leave my side to stride over to the monkey bars—where there is a lot of movement and noise generated by dozens of children every morning, some of them much bigger and older than her—to now being able to swing along the entire length of bars.
She first started out trying on the younger children’s playground at school.
But soon scrapped that plan to aim for the bigger set on the other playground.
These aren’t your stationary monkey bars, mind you. The bars swing from chains, giving them an added dimension of complexity. Once in a great while the older, taller children like to push them so that they swing while a (usually) younger child is approaching. For someone who does not like crowds, noise, or high action surroundings, this was certainly not her ideal set up. But, for some reason, she wanted to give them a go.
It took her many, many months to work her way from only just reaching out to grab the first, elusive bar to feeling confident enough to let go and reach for the second. She worked on it every morning, save for the days of inclement weather when the children were inside before school. She only had about ten to fifteen minutes to practice until the whistle rang, but that’s what she chose to do. She wasn’t interested in playing chase or talking with her friends. She wanted to master this feat.
There were a lot of falls to the ground. There was a sea of children, the same age/grade as her, who could do the entire length (and back!) without any effort it seemed. She was the only one who could do just two bars. One, two, drop. One, two, drop. Weeks and weeks of only that. Sure, many other children probably cannot do any of the bars, but they simply weren’t over there trying, and so it looked like she was the lone child who couldn’t master this childhood rite of passage. I am envious of her inborn set of blinders.
It didn’t matter to her. She didn’t give up.
She was determined and focused in a way that, quite frankly, took me aback. At least considering the anxious, tentative child that she was (and still sometimes is) in the years before this one. She learned how to tell the older children blocking the bars with their game of tag to move out of her way. She found her voice to tell the bigger children that it is not OK to cut the line. She learned how to fall, and pick herself back up, with grace and resolve.
And then, one day late this spring, after a weekend trip down to the schoolyard to show her how to get the body momentum needed to reach the third, she did it. She wasn’t just reaching, grabbing, and then dropping. She was actually climbing. Then more success followed during school day mornings and lunchtime recess. She reached the fourth. Then the fifth and sixth.
And, finally, the elusive last bar. Number seven. She did it. Just days before the final week of school, but she did it, and was already turning herself around to start working on her return trip.
While we were camping over Father’s Day weekend, she showed me her hands. They have callouses forming on them now. They are the physical manifestation of confidence, determination, strength, and perseverance. They are badges of courage for putting herself out there, not knowing if she will really ever achieve her goals or if someone might laugh when she falls. They are little pads of protection for the future challenges that lie ahead.
These, to me, are the most important things for her to learn right now, and I’m so glad she did.
I have learned a similar lesson myself this year, at least when it comes to my endeavors of writing, which are still very nascent. I’ve had to learn how to tune out the noise around me of those who seemingly have more success than I do. I’ve had to pick myself up after many, many rejections and falls. I’ve had to keep at it and persevere with a determination that, thankfully, seems to be unassailable when it comes to this drive to write. I’ve had to learn how to do this in the face of others not understanding or caring much about this path I’ve started down.
I’ve had to wait for callouses to form on my own hands, so to speak.
It’s starting to pay off, all this effort. I was proud to have a piece published on the NYT Motherlode earlier this month. And today, you’ll find me with another piece on Literary Mama, writing about some of what my life as a secular/atheist parent has been like so far.
Maybe these kinds of writing accomplishments will be short-lived. Maybe it is all pure dumb luck. Maybe it’s my fifteen minutes of fame and nothing more. Whatever it is, I’ll take it as it comes.
But, just like my daughter, I’m going to keep reaching for that last bar until I get there.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
“When I grow up, I want to be a teacher or a mommy.”
If your almost seven year old daughter uttered those words, how would you respond?
Maybe if you’re like me—that is, a part-time professional (or even full-time, like I used to be) woman—you might quickly “correct” her and say that she could be both. You’d let her know that teacher (or any other profession) and mother are not mutually exclusive propositions like they seemingly used to be.
And that’s just what I did. I told her, “Well, you know you can do both at the same time, right?”
“Yeah, I know. But I want to be a mommy OR a teacher.”
A few days later I wondered about my response. What did it say about those who do, in fact, choose one over the other, either long-term or temporarily? My intentions were in good faith. I merely wanted to show her that there are options, at least hypothetically speaking and assuming a LOT of other important pieces fall into place. Overall, I think that’s what she understood me to mean.
Yet I cannot help but wonder whether I should have also said, but you can do either one alone too. Because that’s also true and certainly no less admirable. Because this is what some women in her circle of family and friends did or are doing right now. Because this, in fact, is what being a woman with choices is all about, isn’t it? We have choices now. They’re not always easy to make or navigate once we do, but they’re there. The beauty of them is that, for most of us, at least while we’re young enough and have the forethought about them, we don’t have to actually take all of the options available to us.
As most of us place our young children in school, with the intent (both in the curriculum and ultimate outcome itself) being college readiness, I wonder how much we are actually communicating about the full range of choices that do exist (or should exist, but that’s another topic altogether). Many of them, not surprisingly, have nothing to do with college. With such a focus on what happens after the thirteen years of primary schooling, are we as a society doing a good enough job promoting the other important things, like finding happiness in life, no matter what that might look like for someone? Am I doing a good enough job telling her, if not modeling myself, that the end result should leave us fulfilled, above all else?
We only get this one life, so choose wisely. Think about it for a while. Gather all the information you can first.
To make that kind of informed decision though, it requires a bit of honesty from us older and wiser women. We need to be clear about what gaps still exist, and, to be fair, which ones really do not anymore. We need to talk about college and advanced degrees, about marriage, about motherhood. They all have their rewards, yes. They all have their downsides, of course. They all require hard work and, in the case of the last two, a good amount of endurance too. I cannot be the only college-educated mother to wonder, as I’m playing my jazillionth hand of Go Fish, “I went to college and law school for this? Why didn’t anyone tell me about . . . . [take your pick]?”
Am I, as her mother, presenting to her a robust enough portrait of all these things? Considering she feels she needs to choose one over the other, maybe I already am.
Yes, she’s only months shy of seven, and so before anyone accuses me of jumping the gun, I know I have time to make the various points to her. But until that seemingly innocent remark, and my response to it, I didn’t realize the relative burden of the task at hand, and that it starts younger than one might think. It’s fraught with giving her possibly too much information and not even close to enough. I’ll be needing the likes of other women along the way to show their stories so that she can learn from them too.
Yet when it comes right down to it, I’m the primary point of contact on this for a while. I hope that I can rise to the occasion and/or show her that I tried.
Incidentally, I had a piece published on the New York Times Motherlode blog this past Sunday. It’s been an interesting experience putting myself “out there”, to say the least, particularly some of the feedback I’ve gotten both publicly and privately. If you haven’t seen it yet, click here.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
When I think about my parents reading books when I was young, I seem to recall my father with a book in his hands more so than my mother. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening on her end, I just have more vivid memories of him reading books versus the magazines I remember her reading.
I don’t remember a bookshelf in the house, but I’m sure a few were stacked here and there. I remember paperbacks in their bedroom and in the family room, though not always certain who was actually reading a particular one. Robin Cook novels especially come to mind, with their vividly colored (or morbid) covers. The more graphic portions of Looking for Mr. Goodbar were the source of much tween curiosity when I happened to stumble upon that book one time. I don’t recall going to any bookstores, either for my parents or for my brother and me, though we must have because we certainly had our own books around the house.
We did, however, frequent the local library a lot, especially in upstate New York when we lived there. I was an early reader and craved books, but more than that, I think we went often because it was something for my mother (a stay-at-home mom most of my childhood) to do with us.
I remember two children’s books in particular so very well. They were, I dare say, the catalysts that likely solidified my love for reading and books. The first, I took out from the Kingston Public Library—and, I’m ashamed to admit, is still with us to this day, unearthed long ago during packing for a move. It was a lovely but sad story that moved me very deeply: Stories From A Snowy Meadow, written by Carla Stevens and illustrated by Eve Rice. I think it’s out of print now, sadly. It was the first book that ever made me cry. That a story can move a child like that, and still be prominent in the mind of the 40 year old version of the same person, is nothing short of extraordinary to me.
The second book that I remember is more for the conditions I read it under—sweltering hot summer spent mostly in my parents’ bedroom, the only room with air conditioning—as well as the immediacy with which it sucked me in: Konrad: The Factory Made Boy, written by Christine Nostlinger. I didn’t know this at the time, but (thank you, Internet) it was initially a German book translated into English. Sadly, it too seems to be out of print (both in its first 1976 version “Konrad”, and in the later 1999 “Conrad” version), and since I did return this one to the West Hurley Library, I don’t have a copy to read to M. But, that story. Man, I remember just being so consumed by what was essentially my first unputdownable book. Exhilarating and memorable to say the least.
I think the primary thing I am most grateful for from my parents is their teaching me how to read (and by age 4 at that) and giving me the love of books. It is probably the singular thing I am most eager to impress upon my own daughter, above all else. It doesn’t matter what life path you take. If you learn to read and love books, you can go anywhere.
When I think of the similarities and differences between books in my childhood home and what M observes around here, I tick off quite a few differences. First, the sheer number of books in this house is far greater than what was around growing up. Any horizontal surface that has bookshelf potential has become one, and baskets do double duty in more than one room for the overflow. Even M’s own collection is bursting at the seams of her built-in book shelves in her room. I am constantly conjuring up plans for my own set of built-ins in the living room (and it’s gonna happen!). This is all because I have somewhat of a problem with buying books. I can’t stop. My “to-read” and “am reading” pile contains, no joke, 27 books right now, and that doesn’t even count the four I just brought home from the library the other day.
Here’s just what’s in my bedroom at the moment:
Another big difference is that we seem to buy a lot more books than I did growing up. I would much rather spend money on books than toys, and that’s largely what we’ve done for the past 6+ years; most of her toys, save for a few at her birthday and Christmas, are from family and friends. Instead, “treats” from us throughout the year are books. We are fortunate to be able to do this, and I do it because I know that many are going downhill to cousins and such in the coming years. But I also want to build a small collection of “keepsake” books for M to hold on to for as long as she wants, and so there are plenty that are given special storage status. That’s something that I wish I had from my childhood. Whatever books I did own are long gone.
Lately though, we have bought fewer and increased our time at the library because she likes to read the longer books just once and then move on to something else. Obviously, that gets expensive if you’re buying, and so we go at least once a week and take out a big pile of books. She’s usually read all of the picture books and easy readers before we get dinner on the table, and leaves the longer chapter books for us to read to her at night. Here’s this week’s haul:
Also, M has a much greater chance of seeing me reading around the house rather than her dad. This is the opposite of what I remember for myself. My husband does read, but it’s primarily on the T to work when he’s out of sight (and occasionally on vacation). I, on the other hand, will usually grab a book or magazine in any free moments when she’s around doing something else. I’m also the one, through default of being with her more, that tends to read to her during the day and take her to the library. We both read to her at night before bed though. I know that my parents obviously must have read to me a lot when I was younger, but I cannot recall specific rituals about it. For M, since the time she was about a month or two old, both of us take turns reading to her before bed literally every single night (unless one of us is out for a meeting or traveling). It is sacred to her and us. I really hope she remembers that time as much as I will when she’s older.
The last difference that I have noticed is when I am on an iPad to read. Obviously that was not an option for my parents. And, quite frankly, I’m not entirely excited about it now. I don’t read all of my books on the iPad (maybe only 30-40%, if that), but the bottom line is that it looks identical to the times when I am using it for Twitter or Internet research. This bothers me a bit. There is something to be said for seeing your parents, who are your first role models, holding an actual book. This is where I struggle with the advent of technology that is clearly not going away. Maybe she will read all of her books as an adult (or even parent perhaps) on a device. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know but it’s a thing, for sure, and I’m not clear about its implications in the context of teaching and modeling a love for books and reading to children. It’s why I’ve made a more conscious effort lately for these early years to try and limit my iPad reading (and use) to when she’s not around. We also have not entered device reading territory for her yet, though I imagine those days will cease at some point.
But the one thing that is the same is the love for books. She has it already, especially now that she’s discovered chapter books that come in a series. She gets quite attached to the characters. When she was a little younger, she got really attached to certain authors, like Kevin Henkes and Cynthia Rylant. I like that. Currently she is zipping through the Ivy+Bean series, and we’ve started a few new series this week. It reminds me of when I loved virtually everything that Judy Blume wrote, the only author I can specifically recall reading as a child (somehow the Beverly Cleary books did not enter my radar screen).
She knows already that books can take you places and help you make sense of the world, in many cases when you are not able to do that entirely yourself. They make great travel companions and excuses to stay in. They keep you company when your bucket of friends is empty. They become social currency that allow us to engage with other like minded bibliophiles. I hope this is what she takes away from books, just like I did.
What about you? Did you see a lot of books and reading when you were growing up? Do you recall a childhood favorite? How do you incorporate books into your daily life with your own children now? Do you, or they, read on a device, and how’s that going?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
In honor of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I’ve come up with a blog miniseries. Each Friday in May and June, I’ll briefly explore a different facet of media or pop culture that I witnessed at home during my childhood, and compare it to what’s happening at my home now with my daughter.
I wonder: how does our parents’ consumption/appreciation/indifference toward certain bits of culture ultimately shape us? What gets carried forward to the new generation? That is, what do we present to our own children? Will we distill, dilute, or design anew these parts of who we are?
More on the miniseries in a minute. First, let me tell you how I came up with the idea.
My mother watched M overnight a few weekends ago while E and I carved out some much needed “us time” in Boston. Great hotel, food and drinks that we did not have to prepare, some interesting art (seriously, Boston folks, go check out the current exhibit of William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time—it is quite mesmerizing, and that’s coming from an admittedly tentative modern art neophyte), uninterrupted sleep . . . the works. Truth be told, it was hard to come home. But when we did, I noticed (after my mother had left) this magazine in the canvas bin of books next to my side of the bed where she must have slept:
I flipped through it briefly. Although there are seemingly more pages dedicated to pharmaceutical ads than the latest fad in buttercream frostings, I was immediately thrust back into my childhood. It’s not the kind of magazine that I would now buy myself, but it reminded me of how this magazine and Woman’s Day were staples in my mother’s reading arsenal. Maybe there were others too, perhaps Good Housekeeping or Better Homes and Gardens, but these two stick way out in my memory. I don’t think my mother subscribed, but picked them up at the grocery store instead. They were constantly around for our reading consumption, and, I think, the reason that I have always loved reading magazines my whole life too.
What’s not to love about a magazine? Glossy photos of fun things, educational (usually) or helpful in some regard, the varied voices of the writers, easy to consume in intervals, and no long-term commitment needed considering the usual length of the articles. My favorite thing to do at the airport is to go to the newsstand and figure out which one(s) to take on board. It’s why I must avoid walking down the magazine aisle at the pharmacy, because I know they are hard to resist. I think it’s also why I favor the essay format of writing above all else.
I used to read one magazine (Orion) electronically, but there was something about that format that didn’t work for me. I like the tangible aspects of paper magazines (however, I feel differently about books; I probably read about 30-40% of them electronically these days). So, like my childhood home, there are plenty of magazines scattered about.
What struck me though, the more I thought about it, is that the magazines that I currently read and subscribe to are vastly different than the kinds of magazines that were in my home growing up. The ones my mother read were full of ideas to implement around the home, whether it be a fun craft do with us or a new chicken recipe to try. Sure, there were inevitably “it happened to me” kinds of features too, but on the whole these magazines were filled with things to make our home life even more wonderful! colorful! tasty! and fun! than it already was. To me, that almost seems like too much pressure. But you know what? I also remember those coconut bunny cakes she used to make too, probably inspired by the very magazines that I tend to reject. This is where I revere my mother—the parts of her that I am not.
Notably, I think it’s telling that the periodicals I presently peruse do not suggest any kind of domestic improvements (with the exception, perhaps, of the one gardening magazine I receive). I used to subscribe to two cooking magazines, but after years of clipping recipes and never trying a single one, I felt like an unambitious failure in the face of those dusty paper squares sitting on the shelf. Not surprisingly, I cancelled those subscriptions.
Right now I subscribe to these:*
Each of these magazines is largely about what other people are doing; there is very little in the way of practical, “use it at home” advice. I almost never watch the news anymore. I like in-depth journalism and so magazines (and a good does of NPR) satisfies that craving. Plus, two of these (Poets & Writers and Taproot) are decidedly read only to help me improve the writer me, myself, and I. Selfish? I don’t think so. But certainly not the kind of thing my mom was reading in her magazines, which was largely to improve our entire household, not just one of the inhabitants.
Moreover, another difference between what I read and what my mother did is that there is quite a range of material here. Not all of it, I’m now finding, is suitable to leave around with a 6.5 year old girl in the house. Not to mention, she is reading text more readily and easily without us these days, and will ask what some words are if she cannot decode them herself. In particular, I’ve had to make sure that TIME is not completely filled with graphic photos of bloody massacres or catastrophes that she is not ready to digest yet when she asks to flip through a copy. I’ve increasingly begun to question what effect, if any, the images in Vanity Fair might have on her body image and self-esteem, if not now then certainly as she gets older (her only interest in this one right now is those awful perfume samples…blech!). I don’t want to censor her reading, but it does still need to be age appropriate given how young she still is. Perhaps that is the biggest difference between the magazines that I was surrounded by, and the ones that my daughter sees on a regular basis: there was virtually no controversial or questionable content in the ones my mom read. I’d never really thought about that before until seeing that Family Circle in my book bin.
Even though the ones we each favor are vastly different, I see a similarity between my mother and me in that we both love reading magazines (then and now). Given that M seems to be like me in that she also constantly craves new information and reading material, I wonder if she will take to magazines like I did. If she does, I wonder whether she will favor the lighter, more practical pieces found in the ones my mom tends to favor, or the heavier, drier thinkpieces that I do? Will she focus on improving her own life and home, or will she want to learn more about the external world and its myriad viewpoints around her? Will she be more comfortable with electronic magazines than I currently am? It will be interesting to see as time marches on.
What about your home then and now—were there magazines? How does the availability of online content (vs. print material) change the dynamic of access for our children?
Now for the rest of May and June. Here’s what I plan to compare and contrast over the next several Fridays. I hope you will come back and chime in about what similarities/differences you see between your childhood home and the one you and/or your child is living in now.
May 9 – Books
May 16 – Music
May 23 – Sports/fitness
May 30 – Art
June 6 – Television
June 13 – Movies
June 20 – Telephones/communication with friends
June 27 – Hobbies/pastimes
* Full disclosure: I am a regular, paid contributor to Modern Farmer’s online magazine/website, but not its quarterly print version you see here. I subscribe to/personally pay for this magazine myself both for personal and professional interest alike because it is really well done.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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