Almost 20 years ago, when our five kids were all in elementary school, Rique and I blended our families. That’s the word the parenting industry uses. “Blend.” Talk about euphemism. There is no stress in the word “blend.” It’s one utterly pleasant syllable.
Blend is how you make smoothies. Another delightful word. You blend the bananas till they are indistinguishable from the strawberries. Put children in a family ‘blender’ and something quite different happens.
The result will not be smooth. Think chunky. Salsa is a much better analogy. Chunks that sometimes complement, like tomato and pepper, and often contrast, like mango and jalapeño. It’s not smooth, and it’s certainly not boring.
I tried for years to write this essay. But I was on the front lines, and every time I sat down to start, the battle shifted. The boys were fighting the girls. Then the step-siblings were squaring off. Then when things calmed down — for eight seconds — the bio-parents were on the phone negotiating. So I’m going to start at the end: The kids are all right. And they’re not kids anymore. Zack, who at 30 is the oldest, is mine. Jonah, 29, is Rique’s. Max, 27, mine. Kaley, 26, Rique’s. And Zoey, 24, mine.
By most measures, we could be the poster child for blended families. Our kids grew up largely under the same roof. Rique’s kids were with us almost exclusively, and my kids were with us for half of each week. They went to school together and hung out after school just about every day at our house. Sometimes when my kids were at their mother’s house, they’d take Rique’s kids with them. And vice versa.
Today they are as close as any biological siblings. They don’t use the word “step” when describing their relationships. Kaley and Zoey look as if they share the same genes, even though they have only shared the same jeans. Zack and Jonah went to the same college and roomed together in their frat house. Kaley texts Zack almost every day. Max and Jonah live three blocks from each other. Zoey and Jonah tease each other as only real siblings can.
So how did we pull this off? Well, for one thing, we had no idea how bad the odds against us were. Fortunately the Internet was younger than our children, so we were able to keep some semblance of ignorance, which we expressed as optimism. We didn’t know that second marriages have only a one in three chance of survival. Or that when you add kids, the chances go down. And yet we survived even this: five teenagers under the same roof at one time.
Here are four rules, developed only after years of crashing around in the blender, rule-less and clueless.
Rule 1: Stop measuring yourself against nuclear families.
You will never achieve the harmony of even a dysfunctional nuclear family. Those families occupy a single ecosystem. Your new blended family is a diverse, sometimes turbulent mix of ecosystems.
Rule 2: Embrace the diversity.
Biodiversity works in nature. Maybe it can work for your family. If there is a storm brewing in one ecosystem, spend your day focusing on another one. Enjoy the variety. Every day is different. (And you may need a spreadsheet to keep it straight.) My kids came back from their mother’s on Wednesdays. Every other week they stayed at our house through Sunday. That meant all five kids for five days. Then it was just Rique’s kids for a few days. On Tuesdays, no kids. And the schedule would be blown up when one of the other parents wanted to schedule a vacation.
Rule 3: Just say “Yes.”
You know that vacation I just mentioned? Say yes to it. And to the special request that Mom makes to spend a mother-daughter night after a soccer game even though the soccer game falls on your night. And to the plea from your kids to change the schedule just for this week. Say yes. You messed with their lives. You’re the reason they have a schedule. Be flexible. Say yes with a smile, not a caveat.
Rule 4: Get a dog.
You need a dog. I can hear you saying, “Yeah, like I need a chronic illness.” You have enough chaos in your life, especially at the beginning — moving to a new house, divvying up bedrooms, negotiating schedules, figuring out carpools. Well, add to that list, housetraining a puppy. Yes, I said a puppy. You don’t just need a dog — you need a needy, couch-chewing, desperately adorable puppy. Go to the pound. Go the day after you move in. Let the kids choose the dog.
That’s how we got Ribsy, part terrier/part possibly-Portuguese water dog — pure mutt. A mess of shaggy-sheep-doggish fur, 5 months old, returned to the pound by two different families. She was broken and so were we, and she helped us become one family because she was the one thing that belonged equally to all of us.
In the beginning, we were separate families living under the same roof. The Sollisch kids. The Weiss kids. The new Mr. and Mrs. Sollisch. But within minutes of bringing home this homeless, orphaned puppy, we were Ribsy’s family. We were all she had. And that turned out to be enough. For all of us.
Jim Sollisch is a creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.
It’s 3 in the morning when a lovely woman dressed in baby blue slips through a crack in the door to take my vital signs: temperature, blood pressure. She pings my knees with a rubber mallet, does a jerky massage on my feet to see if they’re swollen.
“Your ankles look great,” she whispers, and soundlessly glides out through the crack of light from whence she came.
I’d been living in this surreal and foreign land for seven weeks. Some nights it resembled an alien abduction: green flashing lights and identically dressed figures who hooked me up to mysterious machines at four-hour intervals.
Of course, that woman in blue was a night shift nurse in scrubs, and this was no abduction. I’d been on one of the world’s dullest assignments with life or death consequences. It’s the Cold War desk job of pregnancy: bed rest. Your life is the tedious equivalent of being glued to the same spot shuffling paperwork all day, but one innocuous wrong move and you might set off a chain reaction akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis in your uterus.
On the Antepartum Unit, we got ultrasounds every few days at dawn. In the dark, the scene on the sonographer’s glowing screen resembled an old Jacques Cousteau documentary. A prehistoric looking creature swam in the eerie underwater light, resembling a cross between an exotic mammal and a reptile extinct since the last ice age.
Apparently that was my son, at 30 weeks into pregnancy. How would I possibly fasten a diaper on that body?
Ante partum, in Latin, means before birth, which doesn’t sound too bad. To my knowledge, however, there is not an existing phrase in Latin that means the seemingly endless slog of weeks before birth when you are confined to a bed.
I was still in my second trimester when my water broke in a hospital elevator. The best you could say about the situation is that I was already in the hospital.
Bed rest is like Las Vegas. It’s nice for three days, but stay any longer and you might lose your mind.
Not to mention your money. My insurance covers maternity care and childbirth, yet I dread the astronomical copay bill I’ll eventually receive. It will doubtless be far more than the $9,767 bill Johnny Depp received when checking out of the Mark Hotel after he and Kate Moss trashed it, and Veuve Cliquot is not even on the hospital room service menu.
If you’re wondering how I could afford to sit in a bed for a couple of months and do nothing, the answer is that I couldn’t. As a freelance writer with neither disability insurance nor paid maternity leave, I couldn’t stop working. So I learned to type with an I.V. stuck in my right wrist, strapped to a heart monitor and a contraction monitor.
I tried to remind myself that the sheer ability to work from bed rest is a luxury, one that women who work in retail or restaurants lack. But after having to cancel all of the assignments that required me to travel, teach or be physically present, it didn’t exactly feel like a luxury.
According to a 2015 Labor Department report, just over half of American private industry workers lack access to any type of disability insurance. Bed rest only compounds the dismal situation that many American women face. We emerge from the hospital after delivery not only exhausted, with a helpless newborn in tow, but also likely already broke before facing another several months without pay.
The day I was admitted, I expected to be treated and discharged within a day or two.
“You’re not leaving until you deliver,” the doctor said.
I suddenly pictured the atrophied blob of a human I would become after months in bed, barely able to muster the strength required to care for a newborn.
According to some studies, this isn’t that far from the truth. Research on the benefits of bed rest is murky: Some studies suggest that it’s not only medically unnecessary, but that it may actually be harmful. Even my own doctor, who outlined the standard risks — blood clots, muscle loss, depression –– admitted that the “rest” aspect of bed rest would not necessarily prevent preterm labor. In my case, more important than being sedentary was being monitored, since most patients whose membranes prematurely rupture, and who successfully delay delivery, ultimately develop a rapid onset, serious infection. If things went downhill, I would be “decision to incision in 10 minutes.” That’s obstetrician-speak for an emergency C-section.
Of course, some patients did go AWOL, or at least the antepartum equivalent of it: A.M.A., which stands for leaving against medical advice. That means that you sign a paper stating that you are declining recommended treatment at your own risk.
I stayed. Doctors and midwives visited me at all hours saying, “I’m glad you’re still pregnant,” as if I were their favorite contestant on a “Survivor”-type reality show, called “Antepartum.”
“I’m leaving for Boston tomorrow,” one said cheerily, “and I hope you’re still pregnant when I get back!”
The odds, when I was admitted, were pretty terrifying. Half of preterm patients go into labor within 48 hours of their water breaking. Even if you make it through that crucial window, there’s still a 70 to 90 percent chance you’ll deliver within the week. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of 10 babies in the United States are born preterm each year. Those born between 22 and 28 weeks are deemed “extremely premature” and go straight into the neonatal intensive care unit; they won’t come home from the hospital for many weeks. Many will have serious disabilities. Some will never come home.
After a month moored to a hospital bed, my relationship to free will began to evolve. It’s easy to procrastinate when you feel at liberty, but just lack (there is always an excuse, is there not?) the money, the time, the motivation, the courage. But when you cannot go anywhere, when your freedom is reduced to a room, your perspective shifts.
Earlier this year, in the spring, I was hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a thousand-year-old pilgrimage trail that winds from the Pyrenees to the Galician coast. Your essential task on the Camino is simple: You rise every day at around dawn, slip on your backpack, and walk all day to the next destination.
I learned on the Camino that I am not patient, and that this is one of my worst qualities: always thinking, always looking behind or ahead. Bed rest is like a reverse Camino. My job was to wake up every day at the crack of dawn and not go anywhere. The doctors advised me not to think too far into the future, though I have been practicing this dubious skill my whole life.
One doctor told me, “This is the most important job you’ll ever do.” I blanched at first, probably because I’ve never wanted to think of motherhood as a job. Then I realized what she meant. I needed to focus on staying pregnant — giving the baby time to get bigger and stronger — at least for one more day.
The hardest part of the journey is the first step, right? Respectfully, I disagree; I think it’s the steps in the middle. We’ve just passed the halfway point in my Navy husband’s seven-month deployment (preceded by over a year of constant in-and-out travel for training, called “work-ups”), and instead of sprinting to a finish line, it feels like my 5-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son and I are crawling along a never-ending trail.
During my husband’s first deployment in 2009, I passed the time alone in Guam by training for the Marine Corps Marathon. The day before the race, I went for a “pre-run shakeout” with the running expert Bart Yasso and a group of participants in the Runner’s World Challenge I’d been training with online.
I asked one of the other women in the group, a seasoned marathoner, what the hardest part of the race was for her. Without hesitation she answered, “Unlucky mile 13.”
She broke down the race for me: “The first 10 miles are lined with people. You won’t even notice you’re running. Around mile 10, you start to get fatigued. At 12, the crowds thin out, the cheering dies down, and all of a sudden you’re aware of what mile you’re in. Mile 13, right when you’re halfway there, you’re going to realize how far you’ve come, and how much further you have to go. That’s when you have to dig deep.”
Maybe it’s because I expected it or maybe it’s because it was just that hard, but the next day, right around mile marker 13, I wanted to quit. I sat down on the curb and tried to find the motivation to keep going. I stretched on the sidewalk and watched a small group of women, each wearing a gold star, run by. As they passed, the pictures printed on the backs of their shirts seemed to stare through me. The photos were of their heroes – some husbands, some sons – all killed in action. I immediately got up and didn’t stop running until I’d crossed the finish line.
We’re in mile 13 of this deployment. The middle is tough. The supportive cheers have thinned out, the fatigue has certainly set in, and if quitting was an option I can’t say I wouldn’t take it. The kids are tired of Daddy being gone, he’s tired of missing things, and I’m just tired. I needed that moment on the curb, some sort of tipping point to make it all feel manageable again.
The ship has a Family Readiness Group – a support group for the thousand or so families that have been left behind during this deployment. When the group asked for someone to put together a slide show to be watched aboard the ship during their halfway-through-deployment celebration at sea, I volunteered. The theme for the pictures was “What we’re looking forward to when you get home.” Photos from families missing their Marines and sailors, holding signs promising good times ahead, flooded my inbox.
In the pictures, I found what I’d been missing. From a husband looking forward to a date night, a wife awaiting a road trip, to parents planning home-cooked meals for their children, half a world away, I found strength. I drew encouragement from siblings wanting to swap stories, families excited about camping, and children – so many children – counting down the days to taking their dad to the park or their mom to the zoo. Strangers, bonded together by our hope for a ship’s safe return and our want for our hearts to be whole again.
Above all, I found my “I can do this” moment in a photo of a woman holding a sleeping infant and her sign: “Meeting Daddy.” The mother in the photo is one of 16 women to give birth so far during this deployment. We might be tired, but we are over halfway there. It’s time to get up and start running again.
Many people can roll their eyes, but adolescent girls have practically monopolized the ocular gesture as a form of communication. Adults on the receiving end of an eye roll are often offended, and sometimes that’s just what the girl had in mind. But frequently, it’s not. Eye-rolling serves a variety of purposes, and the meanings behind the mannerism tell us a lot about what it’s like to be a teenager.
Adolescents usually hate being told what to do, and will reflexively resist even suggestions with which they agree. Imagine a girl who is planning to put on her warmest coat when her well-meaning mother urges her to bundle up. If the teenager is developing normally, not a cell in her body is inclined to respond with a sincere, “Great idea, Mom! I was just thinking the same thing.” (And her mom might be stunned, or at least wonder what her daughter was up to, if she did.) But the girl still wants to be warm. Enter the eye roll! One spin around the socket while donning the coat and the girl advertises her resistance while doing as she intended all along.
Given that the drive for autonomy is a central force during adolescence, taking orders can be especially annoying for teenagers. So how should a girl respond when her parents say she can’t go out for the evening until she unloads the dishwasher? She may see no point in fighting back, but still feel compelled to broadcast her objection. Again, ophthalmic calisthenics offer a useful solution. By rolling her eyes while putting away the plates, the girl establishes that she’s an independent state electing to yield, for now, to the regional power.
At other times, girls roll their eyes when adults poke at a sore spot. A teenager hurting over a fight with a friend might shoot a skyward look when a parent asks gently, “How’s Julia? She hasn’t come over for a while?” What seems to be a rude brush-off might actually be the girl’s valiant attempt to hold herself together. Teens can be easily overwhelmed by their own feelings, and they’re often ambivalent about leaning on parents for support. A girl might decide that irritating her dad with an eye roll beats dissolving into tears in his presence.
Girls also use eye-rolling to communicate that an adult has crossed a line. If parents hold irrational expectations, make arbitrary rules, or recruit shame when ordinary anger would do, girls sometimes stick up for themselves by rolling their eyes. Teens who appear to be disrespectful rarely spur adults toward self-reflection, but eye-rolling may be the best defense a teenager can muster in a heated moment. When girls in my practice tell me about their fights at home, I’m often moved by how carefully they weigh the decision to sacrifice something in their relationship with their parent so as not to sacrifice something in themselves.
Of course, girls occasionally use eye-rolling as an immature act of aggression. They attack one another and adults with the dismissive, demeaning gesture and can provoke reasonable people into retaliatory responses. When eye-rolling is clearly meant as an insult, parents can try to raise the relational bar by saying, “That’s rude. I’m trusting you’ll soon find a more mature way to let me know what you’re thinking,” or something along those lines. But more often than not, teenage eye-rolling serves as an efficient solution to the typical challenges posed by adolescence. And it presents adults with a choice: We can take the behavior personally, or we can try to see things from their perspective.
My father isn’t the first person to ask my son if he has a girlfriend. The question pops up frequently when we’re visiting friends of my mother’s over the holidays or talking to affable cashiers at the supermarket. It’s always asked in the same way — with genial good humor and an air of expectation, as if they already know the answer.
My son typically responds with a blank stare — not, it should be noted, the aggressively vacant stare I cultivated in my 20s to discourage the apparently benign interest of family and friends in my romantic life, but an actual stare of incomprehension.
He doesn’t understand the question because he’s 4 years old. Five months ago, he started prekindergarten. Three weeks ago he learned how to calculate seven minus five on his hands. Yesterday, he had a dry overnight diaper for the fifth morning in a row.
Unable to let the moment play out, I jump in with an answer: Yes, I say, he has girl friends and boy friends. He has, in fact, lots of friends.
I say it calmly and pleasantly, with a polite smile that reveals nothing of how I truly feel about this question — this ludicrous question that follows little children around like a puppy sensing scraps. I understand that it’s just the meaningless chatter of adults trying to make conversation with children. I get that their intentions are 100 percent harmless.
And yet every time this question is posed, I hear insidious rumblings. I hear heteronormative expectation: You’re a boy, so naturally, you’ll like girls. I hear the gender indoctrination: Girls aren’t like boys, so you should treat them differently. I hear the premature insertion of sexual politics: Girls aren’t your friends; they’re potential objects of desire.
In this one seemingly innocuous query, I hear one generation imposing on the next one its resolute idea of How Things Are.
And these messages aren’t confined to well-meaning relatives and kindly salesclerks. If only this were a battle being fought on one front. Alas, the global entertainment complex seems to have joined forces with my mom’s college roommate’s husband to provide furtive lessons on how young boys and girls should interact. The G-rated “Peanuts Movie,” for example, which is not only aimed at 4-year-olds but is also, according to one of the early “Peanuts” comic strips from 1950, about 4-year-olds, has more romantic entanglements than an episode of “The Love Boat.” Charlie Brown blushes and stammers around the girl he’s crushing on, the cute little redhead who lives next door, while Peppermint Patty pines away for him in unrequited love. His sister, Sally, ardently pursues Linus, her “sweet babboo” (a term, incidentally, that Charles M. Schulz’s own wife actually called him). Lucy throws herself at Schroeder. Even Snoopy — a dog! — models romantic behavioral standards by courting a beautiful poodle named Fifi.
Why do we do this? Why do we endlessly replicate mature patterns for young audiences? Are we, like the men chasing the maidens on Keats’s Grecian urn, locked forever in “mad pursuit”? Do we instinctively reach for the same worn blueprint, or do we collectively make the choice to pass it along?
At this age, there’s no difference in the way my son treats boys and girls. There’s no variation in the tenor of his laughter, no disparity in the force of his giddiness. There’s only the joy in being chased — around the playground, down the block, through the velvet curtains that line the black-box studio where we had his birthday party. He isn’t enacting an archetype that has existed for thousands of years. He’s simply being himself in the presence of his friends.
Later, perhaps, his attitude will change. Maybe when puberty kicks in he will assume the awkwardness of Charlie Brown or the forwardness of Sally. Perhaps this will happen much sooner than I think. Maybe first grade. Maybe even kindergarten.
But right now, he’s 4 and learning how to subtract with his fingers, and he doesn’t need to be enmeshed in a complex web of dating rituals. He needs to go to the park and to have a sixth dry night.
And when he’s ready for a girlfriend — or a boyfriend — I’ll let you know. But be warned: If you ask about it, he might still give you a blank stare.
Lynn Messina is a novelist living in New York City. Her most recent book is “Prejudice & Pride,” a modern retelling of the classic with a gender-bending twist.
Diane Stanley has seven children in her home: her biological son, Cooper, 18; her foster son, David, 22, who is intellectually disabled; and five younger children whom she and her husband adopted in November 2015. Those five include the biological siblings Demetries, 8; Caleb, 4; and Maya, 2; as well as the biological sisters Julianna, 7, and Juliette, 6. She is also the mother of two adult children and the stepmother to two adult children, and she has one stepdaughter, 14, who lives with her mother.
Her husband, Jeff, is a pastor. Diane runs a seasonal mobile business called Sno-To-Go, selling shaved ice, and plans to open a stand-alone store this March. They live in Texas. There are 12 kids total in the family, and the Stanleys are expecting to become grandparents soon. Here’s how they do it:
We were planning to take a break from taking any additional foster child placements. My father had cancer. We’d had a rough year.
But then I got the call about a little baby girl, and I looked at my husband and said, “O.K., babe, come on.” He agreed— and as we were driving home to get some things ready, they called and said, Actually, we don’t know that you’re going to want to do this, because she’s got two brothers.
And I asked, Well, where would they go? They said they had nowhere else for them to go — they’ll have to go to a group home or a shelter. Just bring them, I said, we’ll figure it out. My husband was looking over at me, only able to hear my side of the call, and he was just wondering what was going to happen next.
They came to our home with almost nothing: three diapers, no formula. They each had one change of clothes, which were all too small. Maya was 5 months old, Caleb was 19 months and Demetries was 6 years old. They were with us for about a year, and then their mother lost her parental rights.
Then we got a call about two little girls who had been in the foster system for about three years, moving around a lot. They were looking for a forever home for them. Would we be interested?
We formally adopted all five of them in November 2015. So, we have three in elementary school and one in preschool, and the youngest is about to turn 3, and she attends a daycare-type preschool, as well.
We are definitely starting over. We actually have a grandchild on the way.
We get up very early, about 6:15 a.m. We start getting breakfast and lunches going, then we start getting kids ready. Generally Jeff will do the boys and I will do the girls, but Caleb wasn’t feeling well yesterday, so I was with him.
One challenge has been learning to do African-American hair and skin care. Yesterday, they just wore headbands, because that’s all my husband can do. He gave cereal to the four younger ones that were going to school and sat down with them, and with David. Cooper skipped breakfast. He’s a junior in high school. He doesn’t do breakfast on school days.
Cooper drives David to Bridges, a “dayhab” center that provides occupational and educational services to children and adults with disabilities, before he goes to school. They left first, then my husband was just leaving, but he and Julianna could not find the jacket she wanted to wear.
I try to be very organized and put the kids’ shoes and coat in a certain place, but this just wasn’t there. The search was on. We could not find her jacket, and she didn’t want any other jacket, it had to be this jacket, and with these little ones, you just don’t push that. They need to feel like they can count on things, even if it’s something as small as a jacket.
Finally, I said, “Maya, have you seen her jacket?” Maya got this little 2-year-old grin, and she opened the door of the dryer, and there it was.
It could stress you out, or you could just look at it and laugh.
So Jeff got them out the door, and I kept Caleb home with me. He normally goes to prekindergarten. They left at 7:25. My husband usually does all the drop-offs before driving back home before work, so he leaves me the big Chevy Suburban and takes the little car.
I had errands to run, and Caleb had to go with me. I told him he could be my helper at the grocery store, and he lit up. He did great. I think it helps when they each get to have an outing one-on-one with a parent.
When we got home he helped me put some of the groceries away, and then he lay down for a nap. I immediately started dividing everything else up, packaging some for meals and putting some in the freezer for the following week.
At 2:30 p.m. I woke Caleb, and we got into the car to get the girls from school. The day before I’d had to pick them up early for an appointment. The kids all have a lot of needs. It seems like almost every day it’s something — an appointment or someone is sick. It’s pretty rare for me to feel like it’s an ordinary day.
We have spent a lot of time at the Children’s Health Rees-Jones Center for Foster Care Excellence in Dallas, which is just for children in foster care. It has truly been a life-saver for us. Many times, we have been at a complete loss over how to handle some of the emotional and behavioral issues with our children, and the doctors and nurses at the center have gone the extra mile to help us with suggestions, referrals to specialists and solutions to our problems. Now that the kids are adopted, we are transitioning away from there. I miss it — we all do.
When they were our foster children, we received a monthly check, health insurance and help with summer camps and activities. Now that the kids are adopted, they don’t get very much financial help. But we’re digging into our retirement and opening another business. They’re ours. We love them.
The money had no bearing on our decision. It turned out that because they were considered “hard to place” children, there is still a small stipend. The amount of aid has gone down $40,000 a year because we adopted them. They still have health insurance, but it has been downgraded to a state plan that doesn’t cover as much.
After we picked up the girls, I brought them home for a snack. They worked on homework. They have reading homework and some written homework every night — maybe a worksheet or some math. I sit down with them. I treat it like home-schooling. Demetries is the only one who can do it on his own, and he wasn’t home. He stays after school for an hour every Tuesday for an artist’s club.
Because of what they’ve been through and because it’s all so new, things take longer. Based on their age, you would expect them to have experienced certain things, but they haven’t necessarily. They’ve never had birthday parties. They didn’t have to sit down with homework every night. Julianna and Juliette have been in eight different homes by now. When we have a guest come over, they’ll ask: Are they going to take us away?
They’re happy and excited to have permanency, but they don’t really grasp it. We are in teaching mode with everything. It can be draining. It takes a lot of patience, and I fail sometimes. I lose my patience and get a little flustered, but then I stop and take a step back. It’s not just one day at a time, it’s one minute at a time around here.
After homework, the kids played outside for a while, then we loaded back into the car to go pick up Demetries, and immediately had to rush elsewhere because Julianna and Demetries are going to be munchkins in the coming “The Wizard of Oz” play at the high school. It was a two-hour practice, and I brought coloring books and a tablet for Juliette and Caleb.
When we came home, Demetries did homework at the table while I was starting dinner. Jeff got Maya. We had dinner. It was a really uneventful night: no major fits, no one getting in trouble or acting out. When I say uneventful, that means no major knock-down, drag-out fights. Just normal stuff.
The older boys had to work. David is a bagger at Brookshire’s grocery store; Cooper works at a fast-food restaurant, Chicken Express. Cooper is a big help with David — he’s a big help with all of the kids. Early on, it was a hard transition, but he has seen how needed it is, and how many kids need a mom and a dad in the world. He has kind of embraced it now.
We come together with the younger children and have family time before bedtime. We pray and do a bedtime story and talk to them about their day, as well as the next day and what the plans for the week are.
Things go much more smoothly if they know what to expect the next day. Julianna will ask me step by step what is going on, questioning about every little detail, even what she’s wearing. I believe it is a result of what’s she’s been through. She doesn’t want any surprises. I asked her nurse practitioner at the Rees-Jones Center about it, and she told me to keep helping Julianna know what the plan is, even for minor things. That’s part of why she really wanted her jacket in the morning.
So many foster kids have had so little control over their lives. They’re told where to live and when to leave, what kind of toothpaste they can use, what bowl they get. I try to give them choices so they can feel in control of those, and not do the negative things that have been all they can control up to now.
Once the kids are in bed, I prepare their snack for tomorrow and retrieve all the lunch stuff. The two little ones don’t have to take lunch, so I’m only doing five lunches a day. I’ve told Cooper and David that, since they help me so much with everything else, I’ll still make their lunches for them. They got lucky.
David got off at 9 p.m., so my husband picked him up. Cooper didn’t get off until 11. Our gas bill is almost as high as our grocery bill! And we haven’t even started basketball yet, and the girls will start dance too. There is a lot more ahead.
We don’t get out much. We don’t have any babysitting. It’s not easy to leave them. When they were in state custody we couldn’t — every caregiver has to be licensed by the state. After we adopted them, we could decide, but we still can’t just hire any teenager — and I don’t want to put that all on Cooper.
We’ve had one date night, because a young woman who works at the daycare was available. Any time we can get her, we snap her up.
We’re getting into a routine. Things are going more smoothly every day. It’s a lot, but we can handle it — although more date nights might help.
How I Do It is an occasional series dedicated to telling the stories of how parents get through the long days and the short years. For more How I Do It, read: Terran Lyons, McDonald’s Crew Trainer, on Raising 2 on the Minimum Wage; How Tracy Mack-Askew, Chevrolet Vehicle Line Manager, Does It; How Kai Ryssdal, Radio Host, Does It and How Nicole Zeitzer Johnson, Communications Director and Special Needs Parent, Does It.
Middle school parent-teacher conferences are tomorrow and I can’t bring myself to think about going.
It’s not the two hours I’ll wait sitting on hard chairs in the hallway, anticipating my allotted five minutes of playing musical chairs with each teacher.
It’s that I haven’t heard a teacher say one nice thing about my child in about a year.
When I was in middle school, my father was one of my teachers. One day in his seventh-grade social studies class, a friend sitting behind me somehow let the pencil in his hand fly across the room. To my friend’s utter horror, it hit my father, square in the middle of his overly large forehead.
The class fell silent.
The kid picked up his jaw from the ground, and then began rapid-firing: “Oh, Mr. Waite, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry!”
My dad’s stormy brow of intensity — what I referred to as his “serious lines” — smoothed, the corners of his mouth turned up, and he broke out laughing.
A big reason he became a teacher was that he liked kids, and he could delight in the absurdity of a roomful of seventh graders. I know he also had days of complete exasperation, usually with parents. I often overheard the phone calls: parents who thought their child could do nothing wrong, parents who didn’t support him, parents who were constantly attacking him and the way he taught or his expectations.
But even when he was frustrated with a student, he was upbeat, positive and full of support as he talked to the parent.
I’m beginning to wonder if my father is some strange middle school teacher anomaly — an empath with evolved communication skills — because this is not the way my child’s teachers interact with me.
My son struggles with organization and self-motivation. Because of this, even though he is in advanced classes, he’s not a top performer. But he’s certainly not failing or in trouble. He’s right in the middle, which is, I’m learning, where a lot of kids get lost.
Classes my child should be skating through, he has just barely passed. Not because he doesn’t know or understand the material, but because he is losing work or forgetting about work.
Scouring the Internet for organizational strategies that might help him, I found an article with a really familiar script. The writer’s experience with her child was so relatable, it felt as if it had been written after sitting and listening to the back-and-forth in our home over the course of a week.
And it was the first time I didn’t feel alone in watching my child flounder with managing his workload.
The article said that the demands of middle school basically outstrip many students’ cognitive abilities. Middle schoolers “freeze up” at all of the possibilities, and at all of the differing expectations of their myriad teachers.
What a relief to find that my child is on the spectrum of normal.
In all of the interactions I’ve had with my child’s teachers this school year, the commentary has been anything but reassuring about the normalcy of struggling with self-management and organization. The responses to my requests for feedback, basically on loop, go something like this:
“J had 14 opportunities to meet this goal. I reminded him on this day, that day and another day. I even made my classroom available during lunch period for three months — which he never took advantage of. He approached me four times for one assignment and he never kept track of it. I just ended up giving him half credit in the end. Hope this helps.”
Well, I suppose if you mean, “hope you feel like a complete and total failure,” then yeah, it helps a ton.
For parents, these brief interactions with teachers are about things that keep us up at night. They are about the people we love more than pretty much anything in the world.
I think back to three years ago and how terrified I was of middle school for my son. Would this huge school with 800 kids swallow him whole? Would he be picked on? Would he survive?
In his middle school career, my child has grown taller than me, gained more friends than I can name and learned to love running and drumming and student leadership. In that time, he has had perhaps 20 teachers.
Exactly two of them have ever said something notably positive about this amazing kid to me.
I wish that teachers would consider that as much as parents want to know about areas that our children are struggling in, we’re also wondering what teachers like about them.
Do they notice that my son gets along with almost everyone, that he loves to be included and joins all the clubs, that his friends mean a lot to him, that he loves to read and has a huge vocabulary, that he laughs boisterously, that even when things are hard he trudges through mostly with a smile, that he’s determined, he’s smart, he’s energetic, he’s optimistic?
I wish teachers would use the conferences, emails and phone calls with parents as opportunities to mention each child’s strengths as well as the areas that need improvement.
Not merely to make the parents feel better, but because the students deserve to be seen for who they are and not only for their ability to perform.
Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer and blogger who writes primarily about gender, parenting and justice-related issues. Her work can be found at The Establishment, xoJane, Mutha Magazine and on her blog, Birth Anarchy.
When The New York Times started Motherlode in 2008, the name was a play on words that marked our entry into the world of parenting blogs. But like many readers, I questioned the name of a parenting report that, by definition, seemed to exclude half of all parents.
Over the years, Motherlode has challenged the notion that parenting is a women’s issue. In 2012, I wrote about the Census Bureau’s categorizing fathers as babysitters. We’ve questioned conventional ideas about the economics of parenting. Why is breast-feeding often labeled a “free” option for women, even though following a pediatrician’s advice to breast-feed comes at significant economic cost?
As a lawyer and former New York City prosecutor, I had a special interest in sharing the stories of families impacted by poverty, unemployment and the challenges of a life lived on the margins – like the Port Townsend, Wash., mother who saw her daughter take her first steps in a homeless shelter.
I am also the mother of four children, including one by adoption. Our family doesn’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting, and neither do many of the families around me. I wanted Motherlode to include every kind of family, to feature parents who foster children, families with children who have special needs, L.G.B.T. families, and stories of step-parenting and adoption. Some stories were so compelling that we visited them again and again, like the complicated and heartbreaking love story of a family caring for, and potentially letting go of, a foster child.
Over the past few years, our vision of what it means to be a family has changed, and it has also become clear that the name Motherlode is more than a little at odds with the larger conversation, which includes mothers, fathers, step parents, grandparents, children, siblings, friends, pets and every possible variation on family.
As a result, The Times is introducing Well Family, a new online report with expanded coverage of parenting, childhood health and relationships to help every family live well. While the name “Motherlode” will be retired, the Motherlode team will be moving to Well, where you’ll still find my weekly columns, as well as regular contributions from your favorite Motherlode writers, including the child psychologist and best-selling author Lisa Damour, The Times’s Your Money columnist Ron Lieber and the educator Jessica Lahey.
Well Family will also offer some new features, including The Checkup, a new weekly column on healthy parenting by the pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass. Ask Well, the popular feature in which Times journalists and experts answer your health questions, will be expanded to include more topics important to families. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter Charles Duhigg will offer advice on solving family challenges, and the Well editor, Tara Parker-Pope, will contribute occasional features on family health, childhood eating and relationships.
And each Sunday, look for Ties, a new series of essays on the diverse and often complicated connections that make up the modern family. Writers will include the New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni, the novelist Ann Patchett, the autism memoirist John Elder Robison, the linguist Deborah Tannen and other contributors who will offer their unique takes on family issues.
So bookmark our new landing page, and — if you haven’t already — sign up for our weekly email for your regular fill of the best of Well Family and family news from around The Times and beyond.
And as always, you’ll still find me in the comments, sharing the same conversations about family we’ve always had. The definition of family is continually expanding, and so are we.