How to be Nice and Change the World in Ten Easy Steps

1. Do you see that elderly man wearing a black cap with gold lettering on it? The one walking gently through the crowds towards the counter line at Chick-fil-A? He’s a veteran. That’s what the hat says. He’s probably seen things and done things that are hard to imagine. All in service to his country. To you. You should buy him his chicken sandwich. Even if it feels weird. Do it. And, remember to tell him, “Thank you for your service.”

2. Be honest with others. Are you struggling with something? With someone? With life in general? I bet if you shared your struggles, you’d find someone else that is struggling with similar things, too. Maybe they’ve been through what you’re going through. Maybe they, too, have been sad or mad or disappointed or stressed. Talking about our struggles helps. Life is hard and complicated and expensive and messy and if those are the only parts you’re feeling or seeing lately, talk to someone that will listen with an empathetic ear. I bet you’ll feel better.

3. This one’s important. Learn how to merge properly in traffic. You know how when you’re driving on a two-lane highway and you see a sign that your lane is closed ahead and you immediately get over into the other lane so you’re properly positioned for the lane closure? And then, when you get to the merge point right before the lane closure, someone zips up beside you and tries to cut in to your lane at the last minute and you refuse to let them merge and then you honk and they honk and then you rage and curse at them and try to do the quick math in your head on just how much your insurance rates would rise if you hit them with your car? This has happened to you, right? Listen, you need to know, THEY’RE RIGHT, YOU’RE WRONG. It’s called a zipper merge and it’s the most effective and efficient way of keeping traffic moving when there is a lane closure. Everyone is supposed to drive in both lanes down to the merge point and then we all zip into place into one lane at a moderate speed. We can do this, drivers! We can get this right! We can be less angry behind the wheels of our vehicles!

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Courtesy: Minnesota Department of Transportation because Minnesotans are super nice and probably all know how to merge properly.

4. Can you hear that child screaming in Target? Can you hear that loud, piercing, high-pitched wail that is making you glad that whatever is making that noise does not belong to you? Well, when you round the corner and find that kid’s mom and her flailing, tantrumming toddler, you should make eye contact and give her a nod or a wink. Something that communicates solidarity in this motherhood thing. Or, a quick, sincere, “You’re doing a great job.” I know it may feel awkward but it may also make that mom’s day. Heck, maybe even dig around for that extra fruit snack in your bag and offer it up. Parenting is challenging. We’re all fighting the good fight.

5. Look, do not vote for the orange man with The Hair. He is not nice. He is the opposite of nice.

6. Don’t tell a woman to smile. (We hate this.) Or, tell her she looks tired. (We are always tired because we are busy fixing things.) Or, ask her when she’s due. (This is never, ever safe.) Basically, be careful what you say to or about women. Think things through. Your words matter. Just like we matter!

7. Ask for help when you need it. Whatever “it” may be. This can be so hard. It’s hard to admit that we need help from others. It’s hard to ask for help. But, people want to help. You should let them help! Conversely, if you see someone else that needs help, help them! Or, offer to help them. They may not want your help but your offer lets them know that someone cares. That someone is willing. That someone is there. Teach your children to help others. Normalize service. The burden is lighter when it is carried by many.

8. Wiping off the kitchen table doesn’t literally mean wiping the crumbs onto the floor. You have to wipe them into your hand. Also, you can’t nest the spoons in the dishwasher. They won’t get rinsed! Likewise, you can’t overload the washing machine. Your clothes won’t get clean and will emerge in a giant tangled ball of… not clean clothes if you stuff it full with the entire contents of your laundry basket. Wait, this kind of went off the rails here. This is pretty much all directed at my husband. I’m sorry.

9. Know that the basic hopes and dreams you have for yourself and your children – health, safety, happiness, success – are the same basic hopes and dreams that people of all races and religions and ethnicities and backgrounds have for themselves and their children. Even if their families, their marriages, their homes, their neighborhoods do not look like yours, the feeling of wanting the best for themselves and the people they love is pretty universal. We are all so similar in that regard. It’s worth remembering.

10. Be generous of spirit. Be generous with your time. Be generous with your resources.

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The sunset a couple of weeks ago because it’s important to remember that we live in a beautiful world even when it doesn’t always feel like it.

Pumpkinhead

For several months now, Charlie has been infatuated with the 1990s television show, Goosebumps. Based on the book series of the same name by R.L. Stine, the TV episodes are low-budget, poorly scripted and completely outdated in both costume and popular reference. It doesn’t matter to Charlie. He found the series on Netflix this past winter and has watched every show available. (There was a fancy movie version released last year and we have seen it but Charlie does not prefer the updated Jack Black version. Too current, too high definition.)

Charlie’s love for Goosebumps was so consuming that it even propelled him to put pen to paper, a task that Charlie finds rather loathsome and tedious. He stayed up late one night earlier this year carefully crafting his own Goosebumps fan fiction starring his favorite show’s characters. I was okay with the moderately scary storylines if the whole thing got Charlie interested in a. writing and b. reading and c. something OTHER THAN fighting with his brother over Nerf bullets.

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Then, on a seemingly unrelated note this past spring, Charlie began talking about planting pumpkin seeds.

“You want to plant a garden?” I asked. “No,” came the reply. “Just pumpkins. I want to plant pumpkins.”

Charlie became laser focused on growing pumpkins. It was all he could talk about.

Since I greatly dislike gardening of any kind I, at first, tried to dissuade Charlie from planting pumpkin seeds. Planting pumpkin seeds seemed like it might be kind of complicated and probably involved soil that was dirty and possibly weeding something and definite contact with bugs and all of that is just simply not my jam. In a last ditch effort at redirecting his endeavor, I may or may not have told him that you needed a permit from the city to plant pumpkins. (I’m not super proud of this but it was the last couple of weeks of school and my head was under water.)

Hitting a roadblock with me, Charlie then approached Bob with his entire pumpkin plan and because Bob is the Fun Parent, the Yes Parent, Bob promptly drove Charlie to the hardware store in town to purchase pumpkin seeds. The two of them carefully chose a window box-like container, added some potting mix, planted the seeds and away we went: Charlie as pumpkin farmer.

Charlie tenderly watered his potted seeds as needed, checking for change daily when he returned home from school. And, honestly, much to my surprise, right before we left for vacation in June, little green shoots appeared. Charlie was ecstatic! I didn’t know it at the time but his plan was taking shape.

We left the window box full of baby pumpkin plants in the trusted care of neighbors for the week we were in South Carolina. Charlie went over the strict care and watering instructions with our friends and with a certain amount of trepidation, he bid his pumpkin plants farewell.

When we returned, we were wholly surprised to see that the pumpkin plants were absolutely BURSTING from the window box. For a brief minute, I entertained the idea that our neighbors had somehow managed to kill the old pumpkin plants in a week’s time and done some kind of panicked switcheroo with much more mature pumpkin plants. Sort of like what you would do if a beloved goldfish belonging to your child died and a direct replacement was proffered before anyone was the wiser. However, (after admitting that they had, indeed, thought of a Plan B in the case of an untimely pumpkin plant demise on their watch), our neighbors assured us that they had not done anything more than follow Charlie’s careful instructions.

With the window box at maximum capacity, it became readily apparent that the pumpkin plants needed more room. They were not thriving in such a small space. So, Bob and Charlie scoped out the perfect spot near our basement steps and went about relocating the pumpkin plants. This involved trips to the local feed store for fencing and stakes and all manner of pumpkin support and protection items. We were all nervous that the trauma of new ground would just be too much for the tender little plants but we really had nothing to fear. The pumpkins did just fine.

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In fact, they did better than just fine. They thrived.

When it became apparent that this venture of Charlie’s might actually prove successful, I asked him what he had planned for his pumpkins. I assumed he had remembered something from school about roasting pumpkin seeds or making pumpkin pies but he instead informed me that he wanted to make a scary jack-o’-lantern.

“Oh, for the front porch, bud? For Halloween?” I asked. “That’s a great idea.”

“Well, yes for Halloween but not for the front porch,” Charlie said. “The jack-o’-lantern is for my head.”

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Charlie’s plan had come full circle.

Charlie explained that, for Halloween, he intended to dress up as a scary jack-o’-lantern just like a character found in one of his favorite Goosebumps stories and the pumpkins he was growing were meant to complete his costume. He would wait patiently while a pumpkin grew on the vine, then he would pick it, clean it out, carve out the scary face and terrorize the neighborhood.

I absolutely commend his foresight and am incredibly impressed with his ability to plan.

I, however, have doubts about if these pumpkins can grow to a useful size.

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Hand for scale.

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Hand for scale.

If these little pumpkins don’t get a move-on, we might still yet have to pull a switcheroo, come the end of October, with something of a more suitable size.

And, in the ultimate Goosebumps-like finale to this tale, the pumpkin plants appear to be taking over our yard, our railing and our basement steps, reaching their long tendrils and big leaves straight for the house. This is the current view from my bedroom window. It’s only a matter of time before our house is consumed. It’s like something straight out of a horror show.

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The Joy Myth

One summer not too long ago, when my children were aged eight, five and two years old, I took them on a trip to visit my parents while my husband stayed behind to work. A long drive coupled with near constant in-fighting amongst the occupants of the car left me completely spent. I arrived at my parents in an energy deficit that I couldn’t restore.

Over dinner on the last night of my brief stay, exhausted but engaged in casual conversation with my mother, father and sister, I described the raising up of small children as being “in the trenches,” because there were days that certainly felt more like warfare than parenting. My kids were at an age where just simply getting through each hour sometimes seemed like a remarkable feat. That labor-intensive, physically exhausting portion of parenthood was where I found myself.

My mother, who raised four children of her own, took umbrage with my description. She explained how mothering her children proved to be such a joyful experience. How she remembered parenting small kids as full of fun and discovery and deep satisfaction. She described the house I grew up in as teeming with not only her kids but also the children of neighbors, an open door policy. She described teaching us how to bake, how to sew and described making platter after platter of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother embraced the demands, the workload and the chaos of parenting. Most of all, being a mother brought her immense joy.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast my parenting journey with my mother’s. In so many ways, we are strikingly similar. But in this one way, this really big way, we are not. It’s not as easy for me to find the joy in motherhood in the same manner in which she did.

After our fateful conversation that summer evening, I grappled with why things are so different for me. Why couldn’t I find the immense joy that my mother described? I definitely have moments of joy – lots of moments of joy – but I don’t know if I would characterize my experience raising three young children as pure joy. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I wasn’t finding enough happiness and pleasure in motherhood.

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However, my parenting journey doesn’t look like my mother’s parenting journey. It is dramatically different, in fact.

When my mother was forty, her youngest child was already in third grade. Now, forty myself, I just wrapped up potty-training my preschooler. I had my children in my thirties. My mother had her children in her twenties. That decade makes a big difference. I am weary at forty. I seem to have lost all of that energy I remember having in my twenties. Maybe the twenties mom version of me wouldn’t have minded finger paints and glitter and cookie decorating and bread baking. The forties mom version of me thinks that those things make huge messes and can’t we just color with crayons instead?

Also, as is more common now, my husband and I have an untraditional arrangement in regard to household duties. While my husband excels at laundry, dishes and toddler tantrum management, I handle every aspect of our finances, from simple checkbook balancing and bill paying all the way to retirement and estate planning and investments. I complete every tax return, schedule every oil change for our cars, coordinate every doctor’s appointment for our family and register every child for every sporting season. I handle every piece of paper and mail that comes in our front door.

In addition, for most of my years since leaving full-time employment to care for my children, I’ve also managed to work part-time. The first few years were spent working in my field of study and, most recently, I’ve worked part-time as a writer. I continue to stressfully straddle two worlds, unable to commit wholly to one for fear of giving up the other entirely.

As a child, I enjoyed freedoms that I would never dream of extending to my own kids today. As a little girl, I used to spend hours at the park at the end of our city block in downtown Columbus, Ohio, with my older siblings. I can’t imagine my children enjoying this type of independence at their age. It’s become an eyes-on at all times existence. I’m not sure there’s more danger lurking nowadays but the threats are more obvious. My standard operating mode as a mother seems to always be set to, “ALERT,” which is absolutely mentally exhausting. I don’t enjoy the same freedoms as mothers from generations ago that could point to an open back door in the morning and not expect to see their children until lunchtime.

There are also all of the outside commitments present today that weren’t present a few decades ago. I’m expected to start my wobbly toddler in soccer, where their only goal is to remain upright. There are spring sports, fall sports and winter sports. There are probably summer sports, too, but I just haven’t been told what they are yet. After school clubs, homework and enrichment opportunities abound. I am forever loading and unloading children into and out of my car. There is always something happening somewhere that takes us away from our home. The pace can best be described as frantic.

One of the most influential changes for modern mothers has been the advent of social media and its deafening commentary on the right and wrong way to parent. There is an incessant stream of information and images telling us what our home life should look like, what my mothering should look like. I should craft with my children, I should teach them a foreign language, their rooms should look put together but casually messy, they should wear this brand of clothing and this brand of shoes. It’s always on, this ribbon of data, pumping us mothers full of information on where our efforts fall short.

Is my joy as a mother lessened just because times have changed? Because life is more complicated now? Because I’m an older, busier, more harried version of my mother? Because Pinterest exists? Yes, I think that’s part of it. But, it’s also more than that.

Where my mom sees joy, I see survival. Joy versus survival. My experience as a mother vacillates between these extremes. There are certainly parenting moments of tremendous joy and happiness but there are also moments when you just have to put your head against the wind and plow through to the other side. Like the two faces of a coin. Joy and survival. I believe with my whole being that these two emotions can coexist in motherhood.

When my son watches the Christmas tree light up for the very first time and I spy the awe and wonderment in his eyes? Joy. Two weeks later when he is writhing on the floor in the throes of a tantrum because he doesn’t understand that Christmas presents are only to be opened on Christmas? Survival.

When the principal pulls us aside at a school picnic to tell my husband and myself that our youngest son is a delightful addition to the Kindergarten class? Joy. When, later that same night, that same son cries inconsolably for many, many minutes because we refuse to buy him an actual, real, live giraffe? Survival.

Seeing my husband’s elderly mother meet her infant granddaughter for the very first time? Joy. The five-state road trip and four-night single hotel room stay with three small children that it took to make that moment happen? Pure survival.

The relief in knowing that our oldest son’s vision is crisp and sharp? Unrepentant joy. The seven surgeries and years of doctor’s appointments and rehabilitation it took to repair his congenital cataracts? Absolute survival.

Having the means to fill my cart at the grocery store with healthy, beautiful food to feed to my family? Grateful joy. Having to take three kids with me in order to get the shopping done? Ultimate survival. Watching as my kids push away that beautiful food and ask for a peanut butter bagel instead? Exasperated survival.

That first really cold night of fall when the wind is blowing and the sky goes dark early? When we draw the curtains, light a fire in the fireplace and snuggle under blankets reading books? Lovely, lovely joy.

When my kids wander out of their bedrooms one by one each morning with sleepy eyes and that one cheek that’s still warm from their pillow? When I scoop them up and hug them tight and they lay their whole bodies into mine? Well, that’s not joy at all. That’s something else entirely. That’s pure bliss.

We should all have permission to discover our own kind of joy in mothering. It’s okay if some of us struggle with finding happiness amongst the chaos and the tantrums and the general din of parenting small children. It’s okay if some of us have awful, terrible days that we hope we will forget. Awful, terrible days that we hope our children will forget. Parenting isn’t an all or nothing gig. It’s not all joy or no joy. There is an awful lot of grey in there. And, perpetuating the myth that we’re mothering incorrectly simply because we’re not happy enough does a huge disservice to us all.

My most fervent wish is that my heart remembers both the joy and the trial of mothering. That I can look back on my years of teaching and leading and loving my children with both the warmth of joyful gratitude and the triumphant knowledge that I simply survived.