Wrong Turn?

It’s been a little over a year since I walked away from my teaching career and started freelancing full time. I decided it’s high time to reflect on my so-called wrong turn. Fair warning: it’s a bit long.

It’s a hell of a thing to wake up when you are 34 years old and still wonder what you want to be when https://www.flickr.com/photos/memoryfreak/6511834823/in/photolist-aVqRCc-5MnsCd-aUDBTz-5AN6w4-aW1nnr-5AMnn4-5c62Qb-aH9b9M-5wqPta-7EFnR6-quvGkm-nnGct2-7fNUg1-gHYFC3-dmyfCP-akHicV-5PHjgc-aSiMac-9TGd3J-akKZfS-dTAKAs-9wkRVT-qeRLQt-qeNnXN-akH9hK-akHjQR-akKXtC-akH9XT-bV6Vif-dTAKQL-5PHfun-9PSLHY-52bYaY-5PHfur-5PHfuR-7fP58U-b3Hzjc-apemzB-bqCkMm-3cjrwC-hsbFtQ-dTAKJ9-akHket-akHhmx-akL6hb-akHbtR-akHceM-akHcux-akL1id-akL9ryyou grow up. It’s an even scarier thing when you’re saddled with a gigantic mortgage, a self-employed husband, and two kids who are just now starting school with hefty tuition bills and to play organized (read: who the hell knew it would be this expensive when they’re 3 and 6?) sports. But, that’s exactly where I am. And, I’m the one who put myself – and my family – here.

I had done everything right. I worked hard, got good grades, became salutatorian, got into a great liberal arts college, got on staff at the college newspaper as a freshman, and quickly became assistant features editor. Then all hell broke loose when I decided to transfer to another great liberal arts college to continue with my English Literature degree but get my teaching certification on top of it. I blame the adorable, energetic, eager to learn inner-city kids I tutored when I tagged along to a church to profile the Black Student Union for the college newspaper. They made me fall in love with the idea of teaching, even though I had come from a family full of educators and did not in any way, shape, or form want to become one myself.

So, I continued to do everything right after transferring. I commuted to save money, I increased my credit load in order to graduate on time, I became certified as a writing tutor, I did community service, I got a fantastic cooperating teacher and placement, and I graduated near the very top of my class again. I was hired as a middle school language arts teacher before I graduated, and I was writing curriculum before I knew it. I lived at home to save more money, got engaged, bought a fixer-upper, got married, got a dog, and had a great life.

Until I realized I wasn’t so much in love with teaching as I was with the idea of teaching. The bureaucracy and politics were one thing, the outrageous behaviors of some of the students were another thing, and I was loving my job a whole lot less than I thought I should have been. The bright spots were the kids who loved to read, who wanted to learn from their quirky teacher, and who appreciated my structured and fast-paced classes. I had never failed at anything that I had worked so hard to achieve, and I was struggling with accepting the fact that even though I was excelling at teaching I didn’t love it. I had all of the mugs and shirts about changing lives and not knowing where my influence ended, but I just wasn’t feeling it like I thought I should have been.

So, I decided to try again. I was hired by another school district and felt a new energy in a new building (even though I missed my original colleagues dearly and still do to this day). I had a much better first year. I had kids whom I loved and who loved me, and it was a good feeling to be teaching sixteen year olds to appreciate Shakespeare and Poe. So, I thought maybe it was the switch to high school from middle school that I needed. And then the years went by and the faces changed and I kept looking at myself in the mirror, thinking that I could not do this for another 30 years.

I wasn’t miserable. I loved my new colleagues. I loved my new school. I just didn’t love teaching. And, once again, I felt like a failure. My students were doing well and we had a great rapport and I was looked upon as a teacher leader, and yet, something didn’t feel quite right. Teaching is the hardest job in the world for so many reasons, and when you’re not sure it’s what you want to do for the rest of your life, you can’t do it justice.

I changed roles in my school district, becoming a coach to fellow teachers, and loved it. I didn’t realize how much teaching had strapped me down. You live by the bell, you pee when you can, and you don’t speak to someone your own age for hours at a time. In my new role, I was treated more as a professional, I was asked questions about my teaching philosophy and instructional delivery, and I put my brand new Master’s degree to good use. I attended conferences and mingled and learned and grew professionally more than I ever had in seven years of teaching. But, I was seeing a stronger emphasis on testing and creating a set of skills students should learn rather than a robust curriculum that allowed them to explore and read and discuss freely. I was uncomfortable with pushing teachers to standardize so much. At the end of the year, the funding dried up, and I was back in the classroom. That was when I knew the end was near.

I was giving higher-stakes tests to kids with each passing year. I was sitting in IEP meetings looking at sobbing fifteen-year-old students who weren’t going to be able to take a welding class if they didn’t pass the standardized state test. I was listening to administrators talk about data and results instead of kids and their needs. And, I was being told that we needed to be positive and not put out anything negative to the community while cheering on those blasted tests and their results. The tests were one thing; putting on a happy face and shoving them at kids who needed something else was quite another.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/maduixaaaa/2567638237/in/photolist-4UTPoM-8pdi7D-4YEiod-AGAuv-qw3yq-5KDKgX-6VGpG7-8LWNy-es6do-4BHuFz-cXnQnS-NGu9r-HFzM8-6Qsm5S-aQUzkH-5uYFsX-qFSrEb-8HaxTp-9qZzSr-y5QQo-eEEUtL-5FDb6x-m69ai-r4AkuU-4fjrQ3-6nh2Nf-cAUanG-qhxiz-qF8GP-9TbbpY-4kELbG-9dx56x-6ayisx-8N1kAe-ahHEgA-7vMPcL-rZ2oCr-4AQq9Z-SVozu-7NwdQ-6BWLsL-iSWAj-iS5Ef-yxXYH-6kySLQ-aSFFYK-fn5Sv7-7bsCdk-qERwNJ-6NRXzsI knew I had to get out. I knew I could not continue to teach to a test not only in which I did not believe but which harms students. I had sleepless nights, panic attacks, and endless lists of pros and cons. How could I leave a salaried union job, a tiny yearly raise, benefits, and health insurance? How could I start a job that doesn’t guarantee work, which in turn doesn’t guarantee pay? How could I ask my husband to pay for our new health insurance plan? How could I throw away a Master of Education plus 60 additional credits? How could I walk away from 12 years of teaching?

The girl who never veered from the straight and narrow, the college kid who tutored in the writing center while carrying an overloaded course schedule, the student teacher who taught on her own for weeks while her cooperating teacher was out with pneumonia, the teacher who always did as she was told and whose students excelled, was going to do the unthinkable. I walked away. I took a leave of absence, started blogging and working as a freelance writer, and within two months had written a viral blog post in response to Campbell Brown’s attacks on public school teachers and unions. I was loving my new job, my new creative outlet, and the fact that I would not have to go back to school in August.

There truly was no looking back when my newfound courage led me to write very openly and candidly about some local education issues. I was very honest and had some strong opinions. Teachers were supporting me. Parents were supporting me. My district did not. And, being censored by my district was the last straw. I always taught my students to speak the truth respectfully and to support their opinions with truth, facts, and solid evidence. I would have been a hypocrite if I didn’t do that myself. I resigned.

Now, I am a freelance writer who barely has time to blog. I mostly write web content for various companies, but if you Google my name, you’ll only find my three blogs. I don’t have a by-line for my day job, but it pays the bills and I get to be home with our boys while I work. The problem is, my current position isn’t quite feeding my soul enough yet, either. I’m not naïve. I know most people don’t spring out of bed, bound out the door, and sing happily on their way to work, but writing about electrical engineering and Big Data isn’t quite what I was looking for, either.

So, why reflect on my sordid tale of being a lost 34 year old? (If you’re still reading, you’re a saint.) I know I’m not alone. Just in my small circle of friends, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count everyone who wishes they had chosen a different professional life. So many of my college friends are not working in a field even remotely related to their degree. Tons of them aren’t working the jobs any of us had imagined: one is a veterinarian tech, one helps at a homeless shelter, one gives music lessons to teenagers, one works as a librarian in a small public library, and the list goes on and on.

These are the brave ones who left their well paying professional jobs that match their degrees to do something else. They took a leap of faith before I did and served as my inspiration, but they’re almost all struggling to make ends meet because they chose to do the work that makes them happy rather than the work that makes them money. A noble cause, for sure, but we’ve still got undergraduate school loans and graduate school loans and rent and mortgages and life weighing us down.

Most of us are between the ages of 30 and 50. Most of us don’t regret any choices we’ve made because they’ve led us to where we are now. I am a much better mother and writer because I was a teacher. I am a much better friend because of my teacher friends. But, when I scan LinkedIn profiles to do my day job, I’m shocked to see that people in this age group have had what seems to be an average of at least eight different jobs. Where I come from, you go to college, get hired in your field, and hold that job until you retire. My parents still freak out about the choice I made more than a year ago. Where I come from, you just don’t do what I did.

Maybe this is what we need to be talking about more often. Maybe we need to figure out a way to help people struggling to make the decision to leave a profession or stick with it so they don’t put themselves through the wringer like I did. Maybe we need to help high school and college students with internships and job shadowing and work experiences before pushing them to make life decisions at the tender age of 18 (instead of shoving standardized tests at them that don’t mean a damn thing). Maybe we just need to share our stories so that other people who feel stuck in their profession don’t think they are just miserable people and that there is something wrong with them for not loving their jobs.

I’m still working it out, but maybe my wrong turn wasn’t such a wrong turn after all.

Images via Flickr by familytreasures and … marta … maduixaaaa

On Registering for Kindergarten and Choosing a Catholic School

I can’t complain. I was fortunate enough to have a summer baby, so I got an extra year with my first baby at home while other moms were standing puffy-eyed and runny-nosed in school parking lots late last August. Instead of sending him off to kindergarten at the tender age of barely five, we are sending him off to kindergarten at the ripe, old age of six. I have read all of the research. Hell, I even did some of the research for my freelancing job. I know there are all kinds of statistics on the values of delaying a kindergarten start, just as there are all kinds of statistics on the evils of “redshirting” your kindergartener. But, I’m a mom who saw her child struggle with speech and some fine motor skills when he started preschool. I’m a mom who saw her son hang back even though he wanted to play and knew the answers but was afraid nobody would understand him if he spoke. I’m a mom who made the gut-wrenching decision to have him repeat preschool and watch his very first friends move on to pre-K without him. So, I redshirted my kid. And, I’m so glad that I did.

Homework by Chris YarzabIn this year of pre-K, my sensitive, bright, quiet son has blossomed. He seeks out kids to play with at school, after happily playing alone during his two preschool years. He now has rich discussions with the school helpers and teachers. In fact, the pre-K volunteer who helps the kids write journals once a week had no idea my son has overcome a severe speech delay. He also recognizes sight words and figures out words when we spell them instead of just telling him to do something (“Please bring me an e-g-g.”) He asks questions and makes connections and watches shows on The Weather Channel and The Learning Channel that I never imagined would interest a five year old. He writes notes to us in church. He helps his younger brother and cousin and pretends to read to them. And, he will start kindergarten in a few short months.

Last night we visited his new school and started the registration process. The principal, faculty and staff, and school nurses welcomed us with open arms and impressed me from the moment I stepped inside. I was more impressed by my son, however. He walked into the kids’ room, answered the brand new teacher at an appropriate volume with clear enunciation, and sought out the action. I wanted to follow him, give him a hug, and tell him that my husband and I would be right across the hall, but he turned and gave us a wave and said, “Goodbye.”

And, that was that. This child of mine about whom I have lost years of sleep is going to be okay. He’s going to be more than okay. He’s ready.

And, he’s going to be in a school that values faith and respect and encourages curiosity. He’s going to be in a school that proudly displays students’ writing assignments (completed in cursive!), creative artwork, group projects, and homework schedules on the walls. He’s going to be in a school that uses short, formative assessments as tools to evaluate students. The one standardized assessment utilized by the school is viewed as a tool to evaluate the programs and curricula, and not to evaluate students. He’s going to be in a school with a principal who stood and answered all of my “I’m a former teacher and want to know what goes on here” questions with honesty and compassion. There was no spin. There were no excuses. I may not have agreed with every single thing that she said, but I know that I will be able to communicate concerns to this principal without being snowballed or told “that’s just the way it is.”

I am going to continue fighting for public education with all of my might. I am a proud product of our public education system, and I was a fourth generation public school teacher. I will more than likely be sending both of our sons to public education for grades 9-12. I believe in public schools and the power of students, parents, and teachers to continue to work to get our administrators, legislators, and departments of education to right the course and get back to the business of teaching and learning.

But, our sons will be attending our local Catholic School for grades K-8 because I believe in small class sizes, strong curricula that includes science and social studies, and an educational environment that puts students, not tests first. I am putting my money where my mouth is, by putting my own child/student first while I continue to fight for others’ children and students.

Image via Flickr by Chris Yarzab

I Became an Adult Today – What the Hell?

I traveled without my parents for the first time when I was 17.  It did not go well, because I was in a car accident with my friend and had to be rescued near Hershey by a state trooper and then eventually by my dad and grandfather.  I moved 4 hours away from home to attend college when I was 18.  I got my first full-time job when I was 22. I bought a house when I was 23 without any co-signers.  I was married that same year.  I bought my first brand new vehicle when I was 24, and I negotiated without my dad.  I gave birth to my first child when I was 28.  I sold my home when I was 29 and built a brand new house when I was 30.  I gave birth to my second child when I was 31.  But, it was not until today that I became a real, live, bonafide adult.

I don’t handle blood and guts and gore well.  I’ve been known to get lightheaded just watching ER and Grey’s Anatomy.  I can’t handle pictures of gutted deer (don’t forget, I live in central PA), and I can’t watch anybody clean a fish.  I can’t watch my son wiggle a loose tooth, and the day that he pulled out his first tooth I thought I was going to die.  When a former middle school student cut his hand on a locker right outside of my classroom, I gathered him up and put pressure on the wound and screamed for another teacher to help because I was already starting to pass out.  The other teacher swooped in and saved the day while I sat on the floor with my head between my knees and another teacher put a cold compress on the back of my neck.  I was never so humiliated in my life, but I did all that I could before I became the patient being loaded into an ambulance.

When my husband cut his hand in our basement years ago, he wrapped it up and came upstairs and hid his arm behind a wall while he told me to sit on the couch.  Once I was no longer standing upright, he told me that we had to go to the hospital and called my mom to give us a ride because I was already sitting with my head between my knees just because I thought about the blood.  Once we arrived at the ER, I sat in a chair in the waiting room while my mom helped my husband.  Nurses kept checking on me because I was so pale.  I couldn’t look at his stitches.

A couple of years after that, my husband had his first surgery of our relationship.  He had to have his wisdom teeth surgically removed.  My mom offered to go along because she was afraid I wouldn’t “be able to handle it.”  I refused her offer and happily accompanied my husband because I knew I wouldn’t have to be in the room during the procedure or see any of the blood.  I was just a loving, supportive chauffeur.  I didn’t know the doctor was going to call me back into the recovery room and start describing the procedure in detail to me while my husband was still groggy.  I didn’t know I should have been sitting down while he was talking to me.  If I had known, I would have told him to stop talking and put my butt on a chair.  Too late.  I passed out and hit the floor and my mom had to come and drive us both home.  Humiliating life event #2.  I, the ride, had to be given a ride.

When I had a C-section with our second child, I could not look at the incision or clean the site or change the dressing.  When they came in to remove my staples, I cried and begged the nurse to do it as quickly and painlessly as she could, and I made sure I was lying down with a firm grip on the pillow because I was positive I was going to die.  When I came home with surgical tape on the incision, it was my husband who had to check the site and clean it and take care of me because I couldn’t look at it, touch it, or think about it.

Before you start thinking that I am a complete imbecile who needs everyone to do everything for me, let’s get a little perspective.  I have had my own wisdom teeth surgically removed and did not pass out.  I have given birth: once naturally and once by C-section.  I have cleaned belly button stumps and put ointment on newly circumcised penises.  I have cleaned poop out of car seats, off of walls, out of the bathtub, out of carpet, and just about everywhere else shit can happen.  I have wiped noses with my shirt and stopped pee fountains with my hands.  Being a mother is not glamorous or hygienic, and I have done all of those things (and more!) with no help because my husband was dry heaving in the background.  It’s blood I can’t handle.

So, when my husband came into the house with his hand wrapped in his handkerchief today and told me that he had just cut himself and needed stitches, I could see that old look of panic on his face.  Not the I’m-worried-about-my-hand-and-don’t-know-how-bad-it-is look, but the can-you-drive-me-to-the-hospital-without-passing-out-because-I-can’t-drive-myself look.  I decided then and there that I was calling my mom.  But, this time, I was calling to see if she could stay with the kids while I drove my husband, because on THIS day, I was going to stop being a baby about blood.

While I was driving, I didn’t look at his hand.  I was gasping for breath and feeling faint.  I answered him in short phrases when he asked me if I were okay.  But, I drove my husband to the ER and didn’t pass out.

And, I accompanied him to the exam room and stayed with him the whole time.  I didn’t sit down because I NEEDED to; I sat down because it took forever.  I didn’t feel queasy when the doctor started to manipulate his fingers and asked him questions about whether his hand were tingling or stinging.  I watched the doctor glue him back together and wondered how much money we would have saved if I had just gotten the Gorilla Glue out of the cupboard and done it at home.  (Note: Apparently, that wouldn’t have worked because that glue is toxic, but I still think we could have given it a try.)  I listened to all of the at-home care instructions and follow-up duties and didn’t even feel lightheaded.  I drove him back home and was doing a little jig about my success.  I probably could have been a little more concerned about his hand and how he was feeling, but I had a major accomplishment to celebrate.  I think making it all about me helped me to forget all about the blood and huge gash that was simply glued back together and seemed like it could burst open at any minute.

It only took 33 years and lots of hurdles and stumbling blocks along the way, but I did it.  I became an adult today.  What the Hell?

Broken Promises – What the Hell?

I broke a promise to myself yesterday. I swore on my old Girl Scout honor that I would write and publish a blog post every day since I started more than a month ago. There were days that I barely hit “Publish” by midnight, and some days that I had to accept hitting that button a few minutes after midnight, but I always made it. Until yesterday.

I was crazy busy with a project for the job that pays the bills, and because the little guy didn’t sleep for two minutes after I got home from my satellite work location (that’s my cool new term for my parents’ den), I couldn’t write when I got home. Then, there were all of the Mom Duties: changing diapers, playing the Wii, playing with trains, pouring milk into sippy cups, filling the Ninja Turtle cup with water when he realized he wanted it instead of the milk, getting the iPad to do whatever it was he wanted it to do, cleaning up, ordering pizza, paying bills… well, I think that just about paints the picture. Once everybody was finally in jammies and in bed, I cleaned up some more and sat down to continue that crazy-busy project. Until 4:15AM.

I’ll admit that I looked at the clock around midnight and felt like crying. Maybe it was the combination of the frustration I was having with the internet and the long list of things I still had to do before going to bed, and maybe it was the realization that I can’t remember the last time my husband and I hit the sheets at the same time, but the tears were ready to fall. I didn’t give in to those salty pests and continued to plug away at my list. I’d like to be able to say that I didn’t turn on the waterworks because I realized that crying over a missed blog post would have been silly and juvenile, but I think what stopped me was knowing that my keyboard would get wet. Anyway, the fact that I broke a promise to myself still bothers me this morning.

As a kid, I made promises all of the time. And, I kept them. If my mom wanted me to do something, she would ask me to promise; it worked better than a guilt trip because even at a young age, I knew that a person’s word was supposed to mean something. I can remember looking at my dad as he was rushing out the door after work, on his way to a meeting, and asking him to promise he’d be home before I fell asleep. He wouldn’t promise if he knew he wouldn’t make it. I remember being very young and asking my mom to promise she wouldn’t make me eat steak one more time because I hated it. She promised, and I still don’t eat steak.

I didn’t intentionally teach our big kid to say “promise” when it came to matters of the utmost importance, but that’s another thing he’s picked up from his mama. It hit me last night – well, this morning – while I was finally trying to fall asleep, that he uses promises the same way I do. If he really wants something, or if something really matters to him, he makes a promise with me. He doesn’t use promises for silly situations: I’ve never heard him say, “Promise me I can eat ketchup tonight.” And, I’ve never heard him say, “Promise we’ll never go to the dentist again!” because he knows that I won’t make promises that I won’t keep. But, he will ask me to promise that I won’t check my phone when he wants to show me his new tumbling moves. And, he asks me to promise that I’ll make his favorite Yummy Chicken soon. The funny thing is, when he wants his brother to do something, he doesn’t ask him to promise; he knows that little guy isn’t capable of sticking to his word.

I believe in teaching by example, and I got all warm and fuzzy thinking about how I’ve already instilled the value of a person’s word in my son. Don’t get me wrong: he still fibs and tells lies every now and again, but he’s at least on the right track with following through on a promise. He doesn’t know that Mommy has a blog, so I won’t tell him about my little slip. But, I promised him that I’d play with him when I got home today, and I will. That next blog post will just have to wait. I may break a promise to myself, but I’ll never break a promise to my children.

I’ll probably be up until the wee hours of the morning again, though, despite the fact that I promised myself I’d be in bed by 11 tonight. What the Hell?

12 Signs You’re From a Small Town – What the Hell?

I’ve lived in four houses my entire life, all within the same county in PA: the two that are the farthest apart are separated by only 18 minutes, on a good driving day. I’ve been eating at my favorite local restaurants at least once a week for as long as I can remember, minus the time I spent away at college. I have a category of people in my life who are “mill customers:” I don’t know their names, but I know they have been buying at our family feed mill since before I was born, and I know them on sight. My family doctor went to school with my mom; they even traded homework in an alley before school in the morning (Mom did the English, and he did the math). I’m a small-town girl, and I’ve decided there are 12 signs you’re from a small town, too.

1. Everybody knows your name.

Well, they may not know your first name, but they know that you are so-and-so’s daughter or son or so-and-so’s granddaughter or grandson and you look just like her or him.

2. When you hear a train coming, you know at least two alternate routes you can take to avoid the train all together.

That first whistle is just a warning. You know you have exactly 90 seconds to turn around, head down a side street, and jump the tracks because the lights are flashing but there aren’t any bars coming down across that crossing. And you feel a little bit like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit while you do it.

3. You hear “mom ‘n’ them” on a regular basis.

Okay. Maybe this is just a colloquialism from my particular small town, but it’s something you hear regularly around here. If it’s unfamiliar to you, picture this: you’re standing in line at a store, and you hear the people beside you say they had to pick up some Pepsi for “mom ‘n’ them;” you ask somebody to come for dinner this weekend, but they say they can’t because they’re going to be with “mom ‘n’ them.” It’s absolutely horrible. I’ve never said it. But it’s a part of the vernacular around here.

4. You don’t know street names because you reference everything by “where so-and-so used to live” or “where such-and-such store used to be.”

I hate it when people from out of town ask me for directions, because I have no idea what the streets are called around here. It’s only been 33 years; don’t judge me. I’m always fascinated by the college kids’ ability to deliver pizzas in this small town. I’ll bet not one of them knows where the old Kmart even used to be, but they’re successfully delivering pizzas nonetheless.

5. You know where everybody’s grandparents live.

Part of growing up around here meant spending time at your friends’ grandparents’ houses, not just your friends’ houses. Whether it was Sunday visits or trick-or-treating or just to drop off a clean casserole dish, you visited grandparents almost as much as you visited friends. The nice part was, you had a whole group of grandparents you weren’t related to but who still treated you like one of their own.

6. People have their own booths and tables and barstools in the restaurants and bars, and you know people are going to catch hell if they’re sitting in them on the “wrong night.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s the local family restaurants or the local dive bars: you can guarantee people will show up and immediately get pissed off if somebody else is in “their seat.” I’ve seen people march over to poor, unsuspecting patrons and tell them to get out of their seat. I’ve also seen people sit and pout while staring at the offending ignorant eaters because they didn’t have the guts to confront them. There even are a couple of waitresses in town who are nice enough to warn people about sitting in certain spots on certain nights.

7. If you can’t find somebody, you know which restaurant to find them in on a Friday night.

There is a whole culture of diners who eat in certain places on Friday nights. These people make up the majority of the people in #6 who have “their spots.” I’ve heard my parents say they weren’t going to call so-and-so because they just knew they’d see them at dinner that night. They didn’t have dinner plans together, and they weren’t going to eat together; they just knew they’d be there having dinner. In their spot.

8. Your mother and grandmother refer to all of the girls within five years of your age by their maiden names, and it doesn’t sound weird to you.

We’ve been to the weddings. We’ve seen the pictures of the ones we weren’t invited to attend. Everyone around here knows when one of “the kids” gets married. But, even though the majority of the girls take their husbands’ names, your mother and grandmother never get the memo or take notice of the new address labels on the thank-you notes and Christmas cards. You will forever go by your maiden name to those mothers and grandmothers, no matter what.

9. You see your friends’ parents and they still treat you like you’re twelve.

This probably has a lot to do with #8, too. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a wonderful development with some of the best families around, and those moms and dads watched out for us when we rode our bikes and played flashlight tag. I don’t know for sure, but whatever the reason, when I bump into those same moms and dads now, they look shocked to see that I’m old enough to be married with children (even though their kids are, too) and they still use that tone of voice they used when I was in elementary school. How are yoooou? What have you been up toooo?

10. You hear certain last names and know they’re trouble.

Right or wrong, fair or not, people are branded in a small town. Certain names and places carry stigmas, even if the current generation is made up of college graduates and success stories. It seems like the oldest generation in town is the most guilty of doing the labeling, and there is a subset of teaching families who shares the blame, but certain last names earn people the ire of many community members. And, the people who are the targets of the ridicule are aware of it and perpetuate it: “Oh, we’re not part of that clan. Our last name is spelled differently.” I’ve even heard people change the pronunciation of their last name, just to disassociate themselves from the rest of the clan.

11. You can list every sport the kids in certain families played.

Small towns like to cheer on their kids, and certain families are known for raising football players, basketball players, soccer players, baseball/softball players, and even 4-Hers. If a kid chooses not to participate in a sport that made his or her family famous, everybody wonders what’s wrong with him or her. It’s like the town expects people to follow suit and not break tradition; when it happens, they’re not sure how to handle it. On the other hand, when a new generation of a family begins, everybody starts purchasing sporting gear in the “family sport” for the new arrival. Baseball gloves for newborns are common baby shower gifts around here.

12. You expect to be able to park for five hours on one quarter.

There are some perks to being from a small town. You’re practically guaranteed a parking spot, and when you get one, you know you can spend the better part of the day parked in town on a single quarter. It’s funny when we go out of town and are expected to pay more than that for parking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about parking fees in the surrounding communities because we are spoiled here.

I’d like to be able to say that my small town is exactly as I remember it from my childhood, but it’s not. I described my dilapidated memories of some of the places that made up my childhood in an earlier post, and after I did that, I realized that even though things don’t look the same, they often still feel the same. Some days, that’s a comfort; other days, it’s not. I don’t know if I want our boys to be able to write a list like this thirty years from now. There are some advantages to this small-town life, but I often wonder about the things I missed out on by living in a big city or going out West somewhere. The hardest part is realizing that our boys are going to have to make that decision for themselves some day, and I can’t handle thinking that my small town may not be their small town. What the Hell?

Dirty Jokes – What the Hell?

My mom and I went on a movie date. It was a bit impromptu, because I somehow missed the fact that the movie I’d been dying to see actually had arrived in our local theater, but we were able to manage to take in a movie, just us girls. I knew I potentially could have some embarrassing moments sitting beside my mom at this particular film because the actors are known for a bit of raunchy humor and foul language. It was rated R for a reason. But, I was not going to allow my anxiety over should-I-laugh-or-do-I-not-want-my-mom-to-know-I-got-that-joke to keep me from going.

I grew up in a house where people rarely swore. And, the times that a little foul language did slip out, it was never the granddaddy of all curse words. I knew all of the curse words, but I just didn’t say them. I can’t remember when the switch occurred, though. That shift from we didn’t swear in front of our parents, to we were old enough to use some more colorful language in front of our parents never was clearly defined, but I remember swearing in front of my parents more regularly as my independence grew. I got my driver’s license and was swearing at home; I got my college acceptance letters and was swearing more regularly at home. It never was an issue, and it never was something I went overboard with; I just knew that one day it was not acceptable to swear in front of my parents, and then it was. Poof!

I also grew up in a house where sex was not a common topic of conversation. Actually, it never was a topic of conversation. I can’t remember having “the talk” with my mom; either we never had it, or I was so mortified that I’ve completely blocked out the memory. Either way, I don’t think we ever had that talk about the birds and the bees, and I think that’s why I never felt like sexual conversations were something I should have with my family members. Again, as I got older, something changed. We still didn’t talk about sex, but my parents did their darnedest to embarrass the daylights out of me. Off-the-cuff remarks just to make my cheeks burn started to be their way of having fun at my expense.  “You better knock before you walk in because you just never know!”  To this day, I cover my ears and la-la-la my way through their barrage of jokes because I’m afraid I’m going to puke.

So, when I accompany my mom to a movie like the one we saw last night, I never know exactly how to play it. I still feel like that little kid who isn’t supposed to get it, so I don’t laugh at the first two sexually-charged jokes. It’s like an OCD-type rule. Then, I felt like I was allowed to laugh at the jokes if she started to laugh first. I used to really like that philosophy a lot, but eventually it dawned on me that I was laughing at the same sex jokes as my mom. And, if I waited to hear her laugh first, that meant that she actually got the joke. I still don’t know what is worse; sitting there hoping that she doesn’t think I understand the jokes or sitting there knowing that SHE does. My mother just laughed at that! Aaahhhh! My awkward feelings immediately melt away when she laughs hard at the joke, because they are replaced by absolute shock. How does she know THAT word? I try to make myself feel a little better by convincing myself that she’s just laughing because some of our fellow theater attendees are laughing, but I know I’m just lying to myself.

My mom gets the dirty jokes. And, she’s laughing at them. Hard. And I’m not sure I can handle it. At least I wasn’t sitting beside my dad. That would have been mortification of epic proportions. The theater staff probably would have to call my husband because I’d be a puddle underneath my seat. What the Hell?

Vacation Anxiety – What the Hell?

We’ve finally done it. We’ve finally taken the steps to book a vacation, even if it is just for almost three whole days and our lodge is less than two hours from our house. This is a big deal, so don’t roll your eyes and groan. We haven’t been anywhere together other than our honeymoon ten years ago; we figured it’s time to go somewhere, in honor of our tenth anniversary.

My husband and I don’t come from families that traveled often. When I was little, my parents never took a trip without my brother and me in tow. And, our trips consisted mostly of day trips to local attractions, visits to my aunt and uncle in Hershey, and an annual summer trip to the Jersey Shore. The biggest trip of my life happened the summer between fifth and sixth grade, when we went to Disney World. I was twelve and too cool for the Dumbo ride, and while I enjoyed the trip, I’m not sure that I appreciated the time with my family in the most magical place on earth as much as I should have. Chalk that one up to that pesky adolescent phase.

So, I did the only thing a less-than-worldly traveler can do when she wants to go on vacation with her husband: I took to Facebook and put out an all-call for destinations within reasonable driving distance that are not too outrageously priced. Suggestions came pouring in from friends, and I was astonished by how many people actually travel. We got so many wonderful ideas from so many people who encouraged us to get out there and not feel guilty about leaving our children for almost three whole days that I made an Excel spreadsheet and started researching potential destinations.

Long story short, we are going to an outdoorsy spot close enough to home that I could rush back to a kiddo with a scraped knee and still make it back in time to hike with my husband. I didn’t mean to pick the spot that’s nearly closest to our home base, but I just couldn’t bring myself to be too far away from our little guys. Some day, I’ll be able to travel without the guilt and anxiety associated with being Mommy. That day is not today.

I’ve talked my parents into staying with the boys, and it didn’t take much arm twisting at all. (No regular readers of this blog should be surprised by that!) We officially are heading to the great outdoors, complete with a suite fitted with a fireplace, hot tub, and private deck. We’ve booked some adventures with local outfits, and I truly am looking forward to not cutting someone’s meat and lugging three bags full of iPads and trains and trucks to dinner. I can’t wait to talk to my husband without being interrupted every other word with such important issues as a broken truck or a turtle whose arm won’t move or a movie that won’t start. I’m looking forward to being able to do things after 8PM, for goodness sake.

And, now that I know our reservations are set and our confirmations have been received, I am starting to feel that old anxiety creeping in every time I give a thought to our upcoming anniversary getaway. What if the baby won’t sleep without his dad being the one to put him down, because he’s the one who puts him down every night? What if somebody’s asthma flares up and I’m not there to notice the first signs of wheezing? What if the five year old doesn’t transition well to his preK class and is having issues with getting out of the car and up the steps to his classroom? What if the two year old can’t find somebody who understands the new word he’s trying to say?

And, my anxiety is not limited to all of the imagined problems at home. I’m starting to think about all of the things that can wrong on our trip, too. What if there are bears that roam a little too close for comfort? What if we encounter bed bugs, even though I researched our lodging site and followed up with references and made sure that it’s the cleanest and friendliest place to stay? What if the bathroom is scummy and small and has hair stuck to the shower drain from the last vacationer? What if there are annoying people staying near us, with their loud talking and their door banging and their question asking? What if there are SNAKES? What if there are more mosquitoes and ticks than there are in my own backyard? What if I can’t relax enough to just have fun?

This is a problem. I don’t even have to worry about these things for more than two months, and here I am. It’s already been keeping me up at night. I’m sure that as the departure date draws near, I’ll be more excited than anxious. I’m sure I’ll hug my boys and have trouble keeping back the tears, all the while knowing that they are in the best second set of hands they could be. I’m sure I’ll look at my husband apologetically and hear him sigh when I check in with the homefront for the twentieth time in one day. And, I’m sure that when we return, I either will want to book another trip right away or never think about traveling again. Or, at least until our boys are older and begging us to just go.

I’m going on a three-day anniversary getaway in October, and I’m already freaking out about it. What the Hell?

I’m Jealous of My Children – What the Hell?

There are not many occasions for me to be jealous of my children.  I can read better, write better, think better, reason better, speak better, drive, cook, order things online… and they can’t.  There are so many aspects of being young (and don’t even get me started on adolescence and the teen years and those dreaded twenties) that I don’t wish to revisit and that I hope to be able to guide my children through relatively painlessly while still letting them learn their own lessons in their own way and in their own time.  But, as I watched them this past week, two themes kept recurring: pure joy and jealousy.

My mind has been on so many personal and worldwide problems in the past few days that I’m not sure I have been as present as I’d like to be; because of that, I tried to be very cognizant of those moments that I was playing with the trains and turtles but caught my mind wandering to other issues.  When I felt that happening, I forced myself to snap back to reality and truly observe my children for a few seconds before rejoining the fun.  I saw such innocence, such naiveté, such purity, and it helped me to relax and enjoy the moments with them even more.  But, it always was followed up with a pang of jealousy.

And, there was some guilt attached to those moments as well.  I think I’m having trouble coming to terms with the paradox that exists: catastrophic world events took place this past week, and I keep seeing the images on television and in my newsfeed that I have no words to describe, yet my family is able to play inside and outside with barely a thought to our safety.  I did not spend one minute playing with my boys this week without thinking about how fortunate we are to live where we live and how we live.  And, yes, there is guilt associated with that, whether there should be or not.

Yesterday, my husband and I took our two year old for lunch.  The biggest problem we had was that he played with his train a little too roughly and knocked it onto the floor a few times.  It clattered very loudly and I was afraid we may have been disrupting our fellow diners.  When my husband returned to the table after paying the bill, he set down some dinner mints in front of our son.  His face lit up and he breathed, “Oh, wow!”  That was all it took.  Four mints.  Pure joy.

Last night, our five year old spent the night with my parents.  When we met up with them today, I took him aside and told him some of the things that we had done while he was away having the time of his life.  When I told him that I had homemade chocolate chip cookies waiting in the cookie jar for him, he threw his arms around me and said, “Thanks, Mom!”  A huge smile and a hug, and then he ran off to jump back into the pool.  All because I spent an hour making cookies.  Pure joy.

At that same pool, our two year old was continuing to learn to swim with the help of one of the best kid’s swimming aids I have ever seen.  We stayed within arm’s reach of him, but he truly was swimming all over the pool without needing our help (unless the big kid jumped in and made a few waves that ended up in his nose or mouth), and we encouraged his cautious independence.  He swam over to the sliding board, put his head directly under the waterfall that spills over its edge, and screamed with delight.  He threw his head back and laughed.  Pure joy.

I could go on and on about all of the moments that made my boys light up and smile and laugh and hug and kiss over the past few days.  We don’t get to spend every minute of every day together, but the time that we do get to spend together is precious.  As the adult, I am very aware of the fact that we may not always have this time together.  But, I need to get better at balancing my worries about everything else with spending time joyously with my family.  Right now, my boys just get to have fun and play and laugh and learn; I realize that’s as it should be. I will bask in their joy as long as I can. But, I’m still jealous of their ignorance.  What the Hell?

On Becoming My Mother – What the Hell?

I don’t know exactly what it was that caught my eye, but I started staring at my hands while I was typing the other day.  My fingers were flying over the keys, as usual, and I was in the middle of a brainstorming draft session, and my attention suddenly shifted away from my thoughts and settled on what my hands looked like.  It took me a few seconds, and then I came to a startling realization: I was staring at my mother’s hands.

I’m not a doctor, and I’m certainly not up to speed on anatomy and physiology – probably because I’ve never taken an A&P course – but there certainly are some similar structures and looks to our hands.  I won’t describe them very well at all, due to my lack of knowledge about the technical terms for body parts, so please forgive me.  I just know that when I reach for the space bar, there is something about that bottom knuckle in my left-hand thumb that reeks of my mother’s thumb.  If I hadn’t fallen back into that old terrible habit of chewing my fingernails while thinking and writing, my thumb would look exactly like hers.

I don’t think my mom and I look alike at all.  I have had some people tell me that they can tell I am my mother’s daughter, just from our physical appearance, but I don’t see it.  Other people have told me that we have the same laugh, but I don’t hear it.  I think that’s why it struck me as so unusual that I saw her hands in mine.  The way the skin scrunches under my pinky when I extend my fingers.  The way there are four straight, raised lines branching out from my fingers and into my hand when I spread out my fingers to stretch them.  The way my rings never fit my finger the right way; they always seem to be turned to the side.  The way my knuckles, when my fingers are fully extended, look like my boys’ bellybuttons a few days after they were born.  The way we have deep crisscrosses all over the tops of our hands and fingers.  I got it all from my mom.

Most people say with a great deal of derision that they don’t want to become their mothers.  I’ve heard my mom say it about becoming my grandmother, and my brother and I tease her about how her driving is pushing her ever nearer to being Nana.  My dad used to tease me about becoming my mom, and I always shot back: “That will NEVER happen!”

But then I became a mom.  I needed my mom from the very second we brought that first precious little life home; with all of his eating issues and food allergies and my “touch of” postpartum depression (as the midwife so kindly described it), we needed her more than any of us ever could have imagined.  I watched her soothe my screaming baby who violently vomited after every feeding by wrapping him in a blanket and carrying him outside to show him the world.  Those hands pointed to the trees and the sky and clouds and my baby calmed down and slept.  Those hands helped me bathe the baby after my husband had to go back to work and some nights had to work until closing time, leaving me feeling alone and scared and helpless until my mom showed up and saved the day and the night.  Those hands took care of things when mine couldn’t.

I don’t simply see physical similarities in our hands; I see active similarities in our hands.  These two sets of hands have cared for both of my children.  They have changed diapers, felt for fevers, dried tears, applied bandages, and held little boys.  They have put battle gear onto Ninja Turtles and made Thomas the Tank and Friends go down the hill without tipping over.  They have stirred macaroni and cheese while getting milk into a sippy cup and not letting fish sticks burn.

I’ve learned so much about being a mother from my mom, and it’s funny how most of that learning happened through watching her hands.  I guess I have become my mom.  Or at least my hands have become her hands.  And I could not be happier about that.  What the Hell?

Kitchen Disasters – What the Hell?

There is only one smell worse than that of the things you hoped would taste delicious burning to a crisp in your oven: the smell of the plastic containers that are holding the delicious food you’ve already made melting in your oven, while the deliciousness inside burns to a plastic-covered crisp.  I haven’t had too many cooking and baking mishaps in my lifetime, because I don’t have enough courage or know-how to really screw up anything; I follow recipes like they are carved in stone, and I rarely try anything adventurous.  The truth is, it’s when I try to get adventurous and deviate from that hand-written path of a recipe, disaster strikes.

Years ago, when we were still a young, blissful, childless couple, I made my famous chicken tetrazzini.  I don’t have too many signature dishes, but if I had to pick the one, this would be it.  My husband concurs.  It requires three pots bubbling away on the stove at once, which is just about enough to put me right over the edge, but I remember feeling confident in my cooking abilities that night.  I think that was due in large part to the Justin Timberlake blaring in the kitchen while I danced and sang.  Apparently, I was trying to bring sexy back while cooking.  It was three days after Christmas: my husband’s birthday.  I was making his favorite dish as a surprise for when he got home from work.

Halfway into the cooking frenzy, I noticed that something smelled terrible.  I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I wasn’t about to stop my dance break to check it out.  I should have.  I wish I would have.  But, I didn’t.  I just figured I spilled something on a burner and it was going to burn off soon.

Within three minutes, I knew what it was.  I couldn’t believe how stupid I was, and I was afraid to look inside the oven to confirm it.  There they were: two huge plastic containers filled to the brim with Christmas cookie goodness, and they were melting all over the inside of the oven with the cookies inside.  Well, they weren’t really inside anymore; they were falling in a hazy plastic goop to the bottom of the oven and starting to flame.  I saw this through the oven door.

I was not known, in the days prior to becoming a mother, for being calm, cool, and collected when I was on my own in stressful situations.  Flashback to Christmas the year before the melting cookie disaster, when our puppy was about six months old.  He lifted his leg on our beautifully decorated, perfect Christmas tree, and I cried and called my mom.  I didn’t know what to do with the tree or the tree skirt or the wet barely-three-months-old carpet underneath, and I panicked.  She came and rescued the tree, the tree skirt, the carpet, and the dog (I was determined never to speak to him again), and before she left, she sat me down and told me that I needed to learn to take a deep breath and deal with it.

So, when I saw the gigantic disaster in the oven and figured that I had only seconds to live because I was sure the whole house was going to erupt into a giant ball of oozing, melting, plastic-covered cookie fire, I got on my phone.  I still hadn’t learned that take-a-deep-breath-and-deal-with-it lesson.  I at least had enough sense to turn off the oven, and I turned off all of the burners and dumped the half-completed chicken tetrazzini in the sink.  But, I had no idea what to do after that.

I don’t remember why, but I talked to my brother before I talked to my mom.  He told me NOT to open the oven because there could be a fireball – too late, and I was damn lucky – and I could hear his tires squealing while he was still on the phone with me.  I didn’t know how to get the plastic containers out of the oven because they were a dripping inferno, but I knew I had to get them out somehow.  I still had no idea what to do.  The only thing I could think of doing was opening all of the windows and turning off the heat because it was the middle of winter, and I put the dog outside because those fumes were killing us.  I was sure of it.

I wanted to beat my head off the wall because I felt so stupid.  What is the first thing they teach you in home economics?  Make sure there is nothing in the oven before you turn it on.  Well, I baked so little that I never kept anything in the oven, and the cookies were barely five days old, so I really was not used to having to worry about anything being in my oven.  I was shaking.  I was crying.  And I was choking on that smell.

Five minutes after my brother got there, it was all over.  He got the plastic containers out of my oven by carrying them on the oven racks over metal cookie sheets to my front yard.  They still were dripping fiery bombs, but at least they were not in the oven anymore.  I had no idea what to do with the mounds of melted, gooey plastic stuck to the bottom of my oven, but I knew they wouldn’t get any bigger.  It took weeks for that smell to leave our house, and I still haven’t lived it down; every Christmas, my brother tells the story and my parents and husband tease me about where I store the cookies.  I haven’t stored one thing inside our oven since that day.

Fast forward to today.  The big kid and I decided to take a risk with our banana bread and dumped chocolate chips into the batter.  I thought the pan looked really full when I was putting it into the oven (yes, I made sure it was empty before I turned it on), but I thought the batter would just bake into a nice, tall, golden brown loaf.  I was wrong.  Within ten minutes, it smelled terrible, and I realized there was a smoky haze in the air.  I wanted to panic.  I had a sleeping two year old upstairs, and the last thing I wanted was our smoke detectors to start beeping because they’re hardwired and nearly impossible to turn off.  I really wanted to turn off the oven and dump the whole sorry-looking mess in the garbage.

But, I knew I had to keep it together for the five year old who had that same look of panic on his face.  I took a deep breath.  dealt with it.  I opened the oven, put foil on the rack underneath the exploding banana bread, and started scraping out the burning batter mounds on the bottom of the oven with tongs.  I enlisted him to help by bringing me paper towels, turning on the ceiling fans, and opening the door to the back porch because I didn’t want him to be scared of a kitchen disaster.  More importantly, I wanted him to see his mom in control of a scary situation.  I’d like to say the rolling smoke and horrible smell were scary only for him, but I felt that old panic rising fast, too.   And you know what?  We survived.  The bread wasn’t a total disaster; all three boys at least tried it.  I’m not even upset that I’m the only one who likes it.

When my mom showed up tonight for a completely different reason other than my calling her in my old panic-stricken state, she immediately said that I should have made muffins instead of bread.  One lesson at a time, Mom.  What the Hell?

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