Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So What, Who Cares?: Overwhelmed Parents, and Germs

Dear Erin:  

As you are now an advice columnist, I'm wondering if you could recommend a personal assistant who can rake my massive piles of leaves, cook meals for my children, tote the overly-chlorinated kids around Southern Wisconsin all week, and help me manage my personal life?  

Clearly, I can't do it well myself.  I'm standing by.

Drowning Dad

Dear Drowning Dad:

The way I see it, parents struggling to manage their bat shit crazy lives have three options. 

1.  Hire Help.

I can't actually recommend any personal assistants.   George Clooney probably can.  But if you really need them, I could recommend a lawn care service, a cook, a tutor, a chauffeur, or a night nurse.  If you belong to a certain social class -- and reside, say, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan -- you may decide to hire all of this help.  At which point, the only tasks you will be left with are writing checks, shopping at silent auctions, and periodically introducing yourself to your own children.

Outsourcing parental tasks is a great option if you have the finances, and you aren’t someone who wants to micromanage your kids’ lives.  Speaking as a domestic micromanager, I prefer to do the cooking and chauffeuring myself.   If that also describes you -- and I suspect it does -- then a personal assistant won’t work for you, either.    But you may still need to know how a parent can meet all of his responsibilities, and feel like he’s doing right by his family, even though his self-mulching yard is the laughing stock of the neighborhood.   

So, let’s move on to Options 2 and 3.

2.   Do less.

Most of us are ridiculously overscheduled.   We could probably all benefit from clearing out some dead wood.  I will give you a boost in the right direction by telling you that raking is for chumps.  Yard work, without question, is the scourge of modern suburban life.  Just leave it.  Or hire, as I do, an army of men with heavy artillery leaf blowers to do it for you.  But then, what about the mad daily dash to cook dinner, drive around town in circles, and get kids to their stuff?   

I’m not one of those parents who yearns for the olden days of unstructured play time.  When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in our driveway, playing H-O-R-S-E with my brother.   To this day, I can spell the word HORSE perfectly.   But otherwise, I’m not sure how enriching that activity was.  So, really, I’m fine with helicopter parenting.  At the same time, when we reach that point of scheduling pandemonium – when it’s been weeks since any family member has sat at an actual table, or eaten anything more than a cold sandwich --  we should perhaps start to ask ourselves some tough questions.  Is this activity essential to our kids’ development, enrichment, and/or happiness?  Is it consistent with our family’s values, and priorities?  Or am I simply doing this because I am an overprotective, Type-A tiger parent, for whom kindergarten is the first step of early application to Harvard?

The problem with tough questions, of course, is the answers aren’t always that clear.   When I go down my list, I can usually find a good, value-driven reason to keep almost everything.   Art class?  My kids need to make a mess somewhere.  Piano lessons?  They’ll thank me when they become rock stars.  Home cooked meals?  Nutrition and mood management.  Language class?  Duh, global society.  And what about those overly-chlorinated kids ?   Well, around here, we think team sports teach kids about sportsmanship and the value of hard work.   And when you look at it like that – as a way to learn lifelong skills, build character, keep them out of jail, and keep them off the pole  --  then sitting on a cold gymnasium floor eating lukewarm Spaghettios for breakfast on a Sunday morning seems like exactly the right thing to do.

3.   Lower your standards.

Here’s a confession: I used to rake leaves.  When we first moved back here, I actually thought yard work might be cool.   I was like: Wow, we have a yard!  With gardens!  Just like Central park! Except we are the only people allowed to pee in it!   

As a proud new owner of a suburban yard, I considered it my duty to keep the place manicured, and free of natural debris.  I became obsessed with raking.  I quickly turned into a crazed Leafinatrix.  I was never satisfied, never finished.  I’d leave my kids inside to watch TV, and go out to rake.  I’d rake all weekend long, every weekend, in November.  My shoulders ached, my eyes were swollen shut from vaporized dirt.  But as soon as I raked, the trees would drop more leaves.  Like kamikaze nature fighters, sent to destroy my pristine yard.  The imperfection drove me mad.   I knew my descent into madness was complete the day I took a broom to the top of my driveway, and started sweeping the street.  To stop the leaves from blowing into my yard

I make this confession, Drowning Dad, because I think parenting is like the leaves.  No matter how much you rake them, some of those buggers just won’t cooperate.  Some stick to the ground like leaf starch.  Some drop late.   Some blow down from your tidy little leaf pile and mess up the lawn again.  You can sweep them all off your driveway, late in the fall.  But in the spring, under the thawing snow and ice – along with the dead chipmunks, and the soggy sticks of sidewalk chalk – you will inevitably find a mushy pile of last autumn’s leaves, clumped in between the garage door, and that thing that looks like it might be a gas meter.  Let's just call it that for now.

The point is, we never feel like we’re doing enough for our kids.   Or making all the right decisions.  Sometimes -- even when we outsource, or cut back – we still mess up.  We feed them cold cereal for dinner again.   We forget to ask if they have homework.  We send them to dance without shoes, and the stretchy Brazilian lady looks at us like we suck.   Occasionally, we have to skip class or practice altogether.  We can’t deal with the rigorous itinerary.  So we get some crappy Midwestern-Mexican fast food.  We turn on Netflix.  And we eat brie off a fork while we cry into a snifter of brandy.   Let me know when I’ve said too much.

But embracing the imperfection is important.  Because really, there’s no prize at the grave for the most perfect suburban leaf pile.   Or the most perfect life.  Or the most perfect dad.   We all try to do right by our kids.  We parent the best we can.   In the end, the most important thing is that you are a super involved dad who actually cares enough to worry about screwing it all up.   It means you are doing it well.  Already.

Dear Erin:

            What can we do about people who go out in public sick and spread their germs and make others sick? I am not really talking about people who might go grocery shopping and other necessary chores in life. I am referring to showing up to a Thanksgiving dinner after their kids just got over a bad flu and now they themselves are coughing, sneezing and blowing their nose. They KNOW they are sick. They feel sick. Their kids were just sick for an entire week, but they selfishly show up to a Thanksgiving dinner and infect the host and her family. My friend, who was the host, is now sitting home this weekend with strep throat and missing many fun events because of this thoughtless person. I told her to write him a note letting him know how selfish and irresponsible he was.

            I see this all the time. I'll be at the movies and the person behind me is hacking away and sniffling. When I ask them if they are sick or is it allergies, if they admit to being sick, I move my seat. Sometimes even if they say it's allergies, I move my seat because I don't believe them. Okay, I understand if you are really sick, sometimes you need to get out of the house. But then, you should just go for a walk. Or go to an early matinee, and sit on the side, away from others. 

            I also see this at synagogue. People look forward to coming to a special event like a bat mitzvah or birthday of someone special.. but they are sick. They have their coat on, a pack of Kleenex in one hand, they look pale and green, yet there they are, in a small room, coughing and sneezing because they are too darn selfish to realize that they get people infected.

  Okay. You get my point. What can be said to someone like this? Something that might even make them go home. Or at least think about their behavior next time.



Dear Debra:

One of our biggest challenges as humans is coping with the selfish or annoying people around us.  Don’t you agree?  You get tickets for Mary Poppins and the family in front of you chats through the entire performance.   You get dressed up for a nice lunch with your gal pal, and the woman at the next table plunks her fork into her escargot dish and showers your friend’s coat with melted butter.  You attend your kid’s soccer game, and one of the loudmouth parents from another team gloats and keep score. Even though you kind of understand, because he's wearing a Yankee cap, the gloating makes your kids feel bad. 

One of my biggest personal challenges has always been the selfish behavior of neighbors.   Back in New York, we had a neighbor named Richard.  He was a successful architect, who ran his business out of his apartment.  He rode everywhere on this old, Wizard of Oz bicycle.  Between the clunky bike with the front basket, and his horn-rimmed glasses, he was a real sight on Eighth Avenue.  Even by New York standards. 

We actually liked Richard a lot.  What irked us was that Richard hung up his bike – bikes, actually – on the wall of our fire escape.  That room, right off our kitchen, was our only means of egress, other than the front door.   We talked to the Super about it a few times.  He spoke to Richard.  Richard moved the bikes over.  Sort of.  But mostly, the bikes remained.  Over time, we accepted that in the event of a fire, we’d make it to the front door, or we wouldn’t make it at all.  Eventually, we threw our hands up altogether, and just put our own strollers in fire escape, too.

Sick people, in my view, are a bit like the selfish acts of neighbors.  They can be really annoying. But you’re kind of stuck with them.  Would it be better if we practiced the customs of some parts of Asia, where people wear germ barriers over their mouths when they’re sick?  Perhaps.   Should people make sure to quarantine themselves when they’re contagious, burn up sick time from work, and keep their kids out of day care?  Probably, yes.  But don't hold your breath. Or actually, DO hold your breath.  Because we don’t live in a society where people consider germs to be their fault.   We think germs just happen to us.   And frankly, they are transmitted and contracted rather randomly.  Given that people have to get on with their lives when they're sick, illness --like annoying neighbors -- is just an annoying part of life.

There are outlying cases, of course.  I agree with you about strep throat and a holiday meal.  A flu outbreak.  Or say, meningitis at Princeton.  The problem with common germs, though, is where to draw the line.   I’d have a hard time saying that someone shouldn’t go pray because they have a cold.   Pardon my ignorance; but isn’t keeping the Sabbath actually a Commandment?   The movie thing is tough, too.  To say that an ailing person shouldn’t be allowed to sit in the seat of their choice -- to watch Will Ferrell act like an idiot, or Dame Judy Dench hand someone their ass on a plate -- seems like an overly harsh standard.   And personally, I’d rather someone stayed home from the grocery store than avoided the movies.  That way, at least, they won’t sneeze on my Cuties!

When it comes to regular old germs, dear Debra, my best answer to your question about what to do about apparently selfish behavior is – unfortunately -- not much.  You can yell at them, if you want.  You can ask them to move, or stay home.  In New York, they might yell at you back.  In Wisconsin, they might be carrying a concealed weapon.  But in the end, you will probably just use up a lot of your own energy and not change much behavior.  I think the more productive approach is simply to relocate.  Douse yourself in hand sanitizer.   Try to avoid the sickies’ air space.   Curse them out silently in your head, and then go wash your hands.   

And always remember the saying:  Good fences make good neighbors.  When people do annoying or seemingly selfish things, put up your psychic fence.  Make some kind of physical barrier, too, with a scarf.  The best we can really hope for, with germs and certain neighbors, is that they just leave us alone.

Good luck, and stay healthy!

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