Archive for the 'Decisions' Category

Work-Family-Life Balance and Having it All (Whatever That Means)

So I’m mapping out a maternity plan for work.

Last time around, it wasn’t like this. Because I worked for a large company, I was promised a job after three months. I had a huge team in my department to take up my slack. My boss could hire a temp if things got nuts. That gave me peace of mind. I had benefits, so I could go on short-term disability and still get paid a little bit. Not 100 percent, but at least it was something. America’s maternity leave laws are embarrassing compared to other countries, but something is better than nothing. So yeah, all I had to do was sign a few documents in the HR office and I could rest knowing I could enjoy my new baby for a few months and my livelihood and income would be waiting for me on the other side.

But it was not all rosy on the other side. My vision to work from home a few days a week on a long-term basis was not in the cards after I returned. I knew this before my  leave, which is why I spent most of my maternity job hunting. The company was young, the owners were young, the workforce was young. The culture was cutthroat and ambitious. We were all replaceable. The idea of me working from home was worrisome to leadership – uncharted territory. They feared I would be the first of many people to want to work at home. Plus, could I pull it off? They didn’t consider my tenure or value my many above-and-beyond contributions or the fact that I was a new parent now facing a three-hour car, train and bus commute. So they didn’t care if I left. They would replace me and/or divvy up my tasks. Sometimes it takes a huge life change to see once and for all your employer’s true colors. I never want to work for a company that doesn’t trust me or value me or care about my quality of life. I am thankful every day I am far away from my old job even if I did take a huge pay cut to get here. Money shmoney. For real.

This time around, I’m again charting new territory. I work for a very small private company that’s never dealt with a new parent. In fact, I was the last “new parent” to work here when I began three years ago. I don’t have benefits here. No HR department to lean on. I’m the only person who does what I do here. So I’m crafting a plan that I hope won’t burden others. One that will continue to demonstrate my long-term dedication to the company. But most importantly, one that I can live with. I feel lucky every day to work for a boss with the high-quality of character that mine possesses. She trusts me, she values me, she believes in me. She’s seen me pull rabbits out of hats. She knows I take my role here seriously. I believe in the product and I can use the money. Still, I feel like I have a lot to prove given this unique opportunity to create my own work-family balance – my attempt to “have it all.”

In my universe, it’s important to do quality, challenging work that I enjoy for people I respect, bring in a little income for my family and spend quality time with my brood. That, to me, is “having it all.”

As I write this, I can’t help but be reminded of the summer issue of the Atlantic with the mom and the baby in the briefcase on the cover. The story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is a brilliant and even encouraging piece despite its title. I highly recommend it. Parts made me angry about our hypocritical society. Parts made me super proud to be a working mom and thankful for those who paved the way so I can do both. Parts made me optimistic for working moms of the future. I cried when she talked about how people on their deathbeds regret working to much/parenting too little. So I think life’s too short not to at least attempt having it all – whatever that might mean to you.

Here’s what I want to know: How do you as a parent attempt to have it all? What does that even mean to you? Tell me about your struggles and accomplishments in finding that work-family balance. Tell me about the values of the people you work for – are they accommodating? Family oriented? Does it matter? Did your outlook on what you wanted in an employer change after something major happened in your life whether it was a move, a new baby, a spouse losing his or her job or having to take care of an aging family member? I’d like to get some more insight on this.

Photo: Phillip Toledano

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Why I Wanted a Kid

I’ll never forget years ago at a Chicago craft show, that menacing plush asparagus holding a Krylon spray paint can. His name was Mr. Lertchman – he was the raddest. I wanted it for my baby boy. I should have just bought it on the spot. It was gone when I went back for it. Still, I made a pretty cool connection.

That was the first time I met Steff Bomb, the famous maker of “monsters” – stuffed asparagus, tree stumps, pizza, corns on the cob, human limbs, GameBoys, banjos, sliders and so forth.

Since that encounter, I’ve plugged her work here in multiple gift guides. I think her pieces are perfect for children and kids at heart. Made by hand, with love and humor, there’s no better treasure than a monster from Steff.

She wrote something on facebook yesterday that struck me: “i don’t think i’ll ever understand why people want to have kids.”

At first, I was kind of irritated because it seems so obvious to me as a mom. Twenty “likes” and a few scathing anti-children, anti-breeder rants and I’m like, maybe I should jump in. Then I was like, wait, this is probably not the best venue to spill my soft, emo mommy guts. Which brings me to this post.

So many people wonder but are afraid to ask their breeder friends why they decided to have kids, and I appreciate Steff for her bravery. So here are my very personal and honest thoughts about my why. It’s a two-parter because there’s the why we decide to have children and why we choose to KEEP our children (hehe!):

I’d been with my spouse for almost 10 years and we were happy and in love (still are). We were super active in the local arts community, working day jobs and freelance gigs, and our free time was generally spent partying. Partying was getting old. The scene was getting old. We were getting older. Our friends were leaving the city and settling down. We felt like there had to be more to life.

We had no desire to live nomadically, drop out or otherwise follow some elaborate ambition that would be unfavorable for raising a family (though, seriously, I know a ton of artists, travelers, musicians and whatnot raising amazing families. Totally admire them!). For us, at least, all signs pointed to baby making. That and we both talked about it and shared a desire for a family (that’s kind of key). We were ready. That’s the simple story of why we made Ollie.

Did I know I’d fall in love with him? Did I know motherhood would be so incredible? I had hoped so. Did I think I’d ever ponder why? Not really, but I’m glad I am right now because like most parents, my biggest thrill is thinking/talking/writing about my child (lame and 100 percent true!).

Why do I keep Ollie around? Only a bazillion reasons: Because he’s got J’s intellectual curiosity and my evil-cute grin. Because with the genes of a writer and artist who know nothing about sports, he’s gonna be quite the baller (amirite?). Because he’ll tell me totally randomly and unprovoked that he’s my best friend. Because he is so eager to make friends, to help a smaller child, to tag along with the big kids. Because he could care less if he’s playing with a baby doll or a monster car. Because he can create a magical world with the box a toy comes in. Because we can give each other that look and start laughing hysterically. Because he still wants to cuddle, to hold hands, for me to “kiss it better” (clearly we’re not talking about a teenager). Because I’m not the only one whose life has completely changed forever in a positive way now that he’s here.

Those are just a few of my whys.

I could go on and on about how parenthood has informed me to make better decisions in my life, made me more thoughtful, optimistic and driven to do things that make my son proud of me. That’s another post altogether.

How about you? Do you have kids? What were some of your deciding factors? Or, if you don’t want children, why not?

The Baby Name Game

Popular Baby Names for 2009, http://www.babycenter.com

Whether you’re a parent or expecting, chances are you’ve been asked at some point (probably more than once), “Do you have any names picked out”? And you don’t dare dish if you have one because everyone has an opinion about it or knows someone with that name who ended up tweaked out on meth or something. But you’re damned either way, because if you don’t have a name, everyone else has the perfect one. And if you do have a name (or names narrowed down) and don’t dish, everyone wants to play the guessing game.

I don’t like the Baby Name Game. Our friends Jim and K.C. had it right – tell people who ask that you have a name picked out and you’re not telling anyone. End of discussion.

We bought a baby name book. It was amusing and sometimes interesting, but mostly overwhelming and unhelpful. I remember finding Cadence in there. You know, because we’re both huge music nerds. So that was memorable. But otherwise, it fell kind of short.

Then there are the gazillion baby name Web sites. Also mammoth and overwhelming. By far our favorite baby name site was NameBerry. Weird name, cool site. J and I would constantly e-mail back and forth names from that site. I highly recommend it.

In the end, we didn’t name Ollie until he was a day or two old. We had a short list for boys and girls, but it wasn’t really until we met him and got settled into life with him that we felt ready to name him. He’s named after my husband’s mother’s maiden name Oliver. Holden for author J. D. Salinger’s protagonist Holden Caulfield from “ The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden was also a possible first name, so was Cormac (Mack for short), Kingston, Issac, and I always loved Brody, too. Had Ollie been a girl, he might have been Delilah Jane (Delilah after my favorite Chicago bar and Jane after my mom). We also liked Violet, Elle, Ella and Milla. I still like Jolene, too.

What are your favorite names? Have any funny baby name stories?

Food Rules: Eat Good, Be Well

I recently filled out one of those silly facebook surveys that was all about food. One of the questions asked about my favorite food as a kid. Without hesitation, I listed sour cream’n’onion chips (Keebler’s O’Boisies if we’re being specific. I could eat a whole bag in one hour of MTV programming after school. My runner up would be another quintessential sour junk food: Sour Patch Kids). Junk food, basically. I sucked at eating healthy when I was little and I’d be a liar if I said I’d prefer Brussels sprouts over mac’n’cheese at 32 years old.

Lately, my family has been on a whole foods kick – fresh meats and veggies, cheese, eggs, nuts, water instead of pop. No sweets or salty corn or potato snacks. No fried foods. We really needed a break from the carb overload we experienced over the holidays and whole foods just seem to make more sense. But what we saw on the “Before You Grocery Shopping Again” ep of Oprah the other day got us thinking about our food choices more specifically. For the majority of the show, Oprah interviewed Michael Pollan, author of “Food Rules.” “This short work is a condensed version of his previous efforts, intended to provide a simple framework for healthy and sustainable diet,” according to Wikipedia. “It offers 64 rules based on his previous book ‘In Defense of Food.'”

Here are some highlights that I really took to heart:

Processed food sucks/If it won’t rot, don’t eat it/If the average person can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t buy it. So there goes processed American cheese singles – which make grilled cheeses so awesome. No more convenient toddler snacks like Goldfish and animal crackers, snack bars, many jarred foods … the list goes on. I’ve already started chopping up fresh fruit in place of giving Ollie a handful of Goldfish while I make him dinner. He’s not complaining and it only takes me an extra few seconds.

If you want junk food, make it  yourself. I’m REALLY actually pretty excited about the idea of earning my French fry craving by having to peel, season and bake my own frites. Same with mac’n’cheese. And you know, homemade junk food probably tastes better than fast food, anyway. And I’m likely not to make them all of the time because, if I’m honest, how often do I want to spend hours in the kitchen for a simple junk food craving?

Dining out right. I get Chilis fever every now and then. Then there’s the Portillo’s urge. And the White Castle crave. If it’s salty, spicy, indulgent and nostalgic – I find myself wanting it every so often. But the truth is, the foods sold in most chains (and many single-unit restaurants) are not only trucked in from across the country from a big food service conglomerate, but they’re pumped with sodium and preservatives. Kinda makes me lose my appetitive just thinking about it. And really, why would I spend my hard-earned money on pre-packaged,  mediocre food that wasn’t even made with any real care? So in addition to eating at independently owned restaurants, I’m also on a mission to eat at places that serve fresh, homemade, and if possible, locally sourced foods. I already know of a handful nearby (see below), so there’s no excuse.

Vote with your fork. Today, the demand is for inexpensive, convenient food that has a long shelf life and that’s why stores are full of these items. The more of us who shop the parameters of the grocery store for fresh produce and proteins, the more likely stores will hear the message that we value and demand fresh foods. And that will drive down price. Such a simple concept when you think about it.

–Pay now or pay later. This ties back into voting with your fork. Cheap, processed foods are easier on the pocketbook than fresh foods. You can fill up your whole cart with boxed, jarred, canned and pre-cooked/processed for the same amount as a fraction of a cart full of fresh foods. Plus, fresh foods rot sooner than processed foods. You do the math. Especially for families struggling in this economy and who are starved for time, the seemingly sensible choice is the cheap and easy one. Here’s the scary part, though: Down the line, the consumption of these cheap and easy foods result in higher medical bills  stemming from a life-long poor diet. So it’s a matter of paying now for fresh foods or paying later for high medical bills. I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and even with my already-stretched budget, I’m voting with my fork and spending a little extra percentage of my paycheck on food that’s good for my family. I hope other people do the same and eventually, the high demand will mean a variety of fresh food for a fraction of the current price.

–Would your great-grandma recognize it? Oh my dearest Nan. Geese grazed on her  property in Arkansas before she moved back to Illinois. She made chicken soup using the whole carcass, plus fresh veggies. For breakfast, we ate omelets and sausage. It was that or her fiber cereal. Her homemade biscuits and sausage gravy rival any I’ve had since. She was the consummate chef. What would she think of cotton-candy flavored yogurt that comes in a tube? “Fruit” snacks filled with gooey liquid? Energy drinks? Hot Pockets? Nan worked hard, cooked like she meant it and lived to 89. No heart disease, diabetes or obesity.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to be a better consumer.  My family’s heath and wellness depends on it. What does your fridge and pantry look like? Do you think these “Food Rules” will change the way you shop at all?

Finally, here are some links to the like-minded (I know there are more in McHenry County. If you have any, PLEASE share!):

“they absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!”

J forwarded me this parenting post from Reddit, from “klenow.” Have to admit, it sums up how we feel pretty much to a T (although my goal is to not spank, not even once if that’s possible):

“I am a bit old school. I have two kids 6 and 2.5, girl and boy respectively.

First you start with philosophy. I am not here to be their buddies, I am their parent. I don’t take that distinction lightly, we can be buddies when they are 20. Central to my philosophy is discipline. They must do what my wife and I say. Safety issues are involved with this. I don’t believe you should ever talk your kids into anything, or have to convince them. You are the parent. Example: I was at the park and some mom was asking the kid to be done…she said “Johnny can we be done playing now?” You know what the little shit’s response was? “NO!” I give my kids a 5 minute warning that we will leave in 5 so they can prepare their brains but when it hits, we are gone no discussions.

We are progressive as a couple but inadvertently settled into traditional roles in the sense that dad is the last scary threat. I have spanked each one once, when I did I made it hurt, now I don’t have to anymore. The threat is enough. A deep daddy voice goes a long way. You are alpha male, the silver-back, let them know.

Some things are not negotiable. No tantrums ever. No talking back. manners at public places. Failure to follow these rules results in a shit storm. Mom does the day to day and if the kids get bad dad is the nuclear option.

Parenting isn’t rocket science and I think you are putting to much thought into it and not enough instinct. Kids are not rational creatures, they are little terminators. They can’t be bargained with! They can’t be reasoned with! They don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!”

It Ain’t Easy Bein’ a Teen Girl

Writing about raising a teen is probably not what you’d expect from a mom of a one-year-old, but after a convo yesterday with a mom of a teen girl, the wheels began turning. And after all, I was a teenager once, too, albeit it has been 12 years. Wow!

The mom and I chatted about how this generation of girls are way more extroverted and confident than we were; how their uber-confidence might be a good thing; how one year for Halloween they’re a generic witch and the next they’re sexy nurses; about the super-high drama of being a teen girl; plus, the incessant TALK TALK TALK.

She was telling me about how she caught her daughter and her friends making a “girls gone wild” video with a camera phone the other day. While they weren’t topless, they were scantily clad. Stuff, frankly, girls do together for their own amusement. My friends and I had a ball doing hair and make up, video taping fake talk shows, dance routines, etc. Remember the Cosby Show ep where Vanessa and her spandexed and bra-stuffed gal pals do the dance routine to “Locomotion” and royally piss off Clair? Innocent fun, right?

I’m pretty aware now why we worry about our teens, who really are more extroverted and accessible than we were. I don’t think we’re being overly exaggeratory about our fears. In this age of “To Catch a Predator”, sexting, social networking and google-able neighborhood sex offenders, it’s no wonder parents are freaking.

These are some of the messages I would have liked to have given the younger me, my friends’ younger selves and would like to share with every teenage girl on the planet:

  1. On older guys: OK, look, you think it’s cool getting attention from older guys, guys with cars, guys with facial hair, guys who can drink … legally. I get it. Your boy peers are totally immature and gross most of the time and you’re over it. But listen, that cool older guy, see, he cannot date in his age group b/c he’s a moron. He’s afraid of women and threatened by them, so he’s going where the getting’ is good and easy: teens. It’s like you macking on a middle schooler. Kinda gross now that you look at it that way.
  2. On sexting: Sexy pics to your true love become blackmail when he becomes the guy you dumped for your next “this-time-it’s real” true love. Pics and vids might as be the world’s property once you hit “send.”
  3. On growing up: You want to look like you’re in your 20s, you want to date guys in their 20s, you want a car, money and a really late curfew (or none at all). You can have all of that and you probably will when you get your butt out of high school. But you got it pretty good right now. Enjoy your family, your friends and school. Get home on time. Kiss whatever parent is waiting up for you good-night. Growing up is overrated.
  4. On girl-hating: Whether it’s get attention from your enemy’s boyfriend, starting rumors about your arch rival or swearing off what’s-her-name “forever” over something super petty, girl-on-girl hating is ugly. It seems like we all fall into the trap and it’s usually over a guy who could really care less. Total. Waste. Of. Time. Keep your friends close. You’ll miss them someday.
  5. On the world: Your world is about 15 square miles right now. If you are growing up in a big city, probably 15 square blocks. The world is big and exciting and full of adventures. Make sure getting to know your world is part of the big plan even if you end up “going home” to live out the rest of your life.

Baby or No?

My friend Kate recently blogged about the big question: Do I want to have a baby? This is an incredibly personal choice and asking others opens a Pandora’s Box of opinions across the board – just check out her comments. I admire her for asking. I tried commenting on her post, but found myself getting long-winded, defensive of parenthood and then really wishy-washy at times — basically, I couldn’t put my thoughts into a nicely packaged statement, so I decided to just blog about it here (albeit still long-winded, I admit!).

“Do I want to have a baby?” It’s not something to take lightly, and if you’re on the fence, I’d say give it some time. I listed a few thoughts. Obviously, as a mom of a year tomorrow, I’m gonna have something to add to the conversation.

1. Not sure about a baby? Start with a pet. Seriously! When a young couple gets a pet, you can pretty much assume one of two things: they’re trying to save their relationship or they’re practicing for a baby. If you’re in the latter group, you’ll find pets, like kids, demand patience, training, discipline and unconditional love. They need lots of attention and families tend to bond over them. You generally plan around your pet a lot. Kind of like kids. Will a pet totally prepare you for a baby? Hell no, but it’s good practice is all I’m saying. As for people in crappy relationships, google “couples therapy” and your zip code. Don’t put a pet through your drama.

2. Don’t wait for the money. If you save your pennies for a baby, you’ll be 80 by the time you’re ready to have one. I’m not saying if you’ve been laid off and your house is in foreclosure, it’s as good of a time as any to get knocked up, but time will escape you if you’re always waiting for the magic income number or for some silly status symbol in order to justify having a kid. And remember that money is relative. Your poor might be my rich. Way fewer people would have kids if they obsessed over their bank accounts (I realize in some instances, that’s a good thing).

3. Don’t wait for the magic age. I have a friend who is so caught up in status and finances (and, frankly, his high-maintenance lifestyle) that he thinks maybe by 40 he’ll be ready for a baby (wonder if his fiance knows!). While 40 is by no means old, you have to picture yourself as your child ages and how that impacts them, particularly if you’re not the hippest of people. Nothing is more unfortunate to me than out-of-touch, technology- and pop culture-challenged,  health/safety-obsessed parents. They’re the ones whose kid wears a helmet to the bus stop (supervised, of course). I suppose you could be out-of-touch at any age, but I’ve noticed the older,  former yuppie parents are the biggest offenders.

4. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. If you really want a child, don’t talk yourself out of it because you’re worried about XY and Z. A good ob-gyn will discuss things like medical history and genetic factors, etc. The chance two healthy parents will have a child with birth defects are so slim, it’s not worth getting worked up over, but the docs have to discuss it with you. As for what happens after your pink-faced screaming rug rat pops out? That’s up to you and who you choose to help raise him or her. You CAN be a good parent, you CAN’T guarantee your kid is going to always be what you deem a “good” kid. J and I joke around about how Ollie is going to be a jock-y Alex P. Keaton-type because we’re so opposite of that. I’ve fully accepted it, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to encourage music lessons, surround him with art and literature and teach him how to be DIY, empathetic and cultured. I mean, the kid already likes carnitas, for god’s sake! So far, so good!

5. Sample from the buffet of parenthood. Take what you like from your parents’, friends’ and relatives’ parenting style and pass on those styles you don’t jive with. And be unapologetic about your convictions. Read all the books you want, watch all the parenting shows you can stand, but when it comes down it, it’s gotta be your own unique style if it’s gonna work. You’ll find what works and what doesn’t in your household. And don’t NOT do something just because your parents did it. Sometimes your folks were right, believe it or not. You’ll slap yourself for thinking or saying it out loud, but get used to it. They were unfair assholes when you were 16, but they built the character you have today. Remember that. And guess what? You might as well accept that you are someday going to be an unfair asshole to someone else.

6. Ask for help. You’re going to need it. For daily childcare tasks, split it with your spouse if you have one. Don’t be a hero. If it’s a question of health and safety, start with pediatricians because they’re the experts, but your mom, sister, neighbor, etc., who’ve had kids have some tricks of the trade, too. My mother-in-law told us to bathe our little turkey in cool water when he had a fever. Sounds a little old-school (albeit obvious), but that fever went right down. The Internets is OK, but make sure to use reputable sites. Health, safety, discipline and development often comes down to common sense and asking the right people the right questions. And not being too proud to do so.

7. Baby on board … and abroad. Wonder if you are ready to have your lifestyle completely shaken up with the addition of a baby — and if jet-setting will come to a halt? It sort of depends. International travel with an infant? Probably not a great idea, though people do it. You’re probably not going to be throwing back pints at a pub in Ireland or zip-lining through the jungle with a baby in tow. If you have grand travel plans best enjoyed with adults, find childcare or get travel out of the way before you make a baby. As for daily tasks and errands, you’ll find it’s faster to do them solo while your spouse or sitter watches the kid. J and I alternate doing errands solo and occasionally a grandparent out to help, but largely make family trips out of errands. Sure, taking baby along requires more planning and packing, but nothing is so important that you can’t spare a few minutes to prepare for it. Simply put, you can’t hole up inside until your kid can stay home alone. Plus, kids, much like adults, are designed to go places.
8. Remember: Dumber people have done this parenthood thing. My friend Staci once told me “dumber people have done this” giving me instructions on using the el train when I was new to Chicago. Advice that — guess who — her mom gave her about learning to drive. Gotta love moms. That bit has stuck with me. The truth is, dumber people have kids all the time. Some dumb people have eight at once. Without a partner! And get TV shows out of it! Not so dumb, I guess. With that in mind, just because dumb people have kids, doesn’t get the “smart” ones off the hook to be sloppy. You still have to always be on your toes. Always. Especially when your kid is 16 and knows everything and hates you/wishes you dead.
9. Go with your gut. You’ll know when you’re ready, and when you’re ready, hopefully you have a very uneventful pregnancy and birth. And suddenly, you’ll find you’re not so worried about as much anymore because you’ve had nine months to wrap your head around being a parent and prepare your home and life for the baby. Not to mention, you really don’t have time to obsess over your decision when your decision is peeing on you.
10. Enjoy life. Whether you decide to have kids or not, it’s important to enjoy life without regrets. I’ve never regretted our decision, not when I was waddling on the icy train platform in below-zero weather at 8 months preggo; not when I experienced some fucked-up labor scenarios I still can’t visualize; not when my tits were cracked and bleeding from breastfeeding; and not when I was severely panicked during Ollie’s first fever. I’m actually kind of proud of those survivor mommy moments. Maybe if I was 15, living at home without a partner, it would be a different story, but now that we have Ollie, I have so much joy I didn’t know I once lacked – a different type of joy I never got from anything else. The ups and downs of the parenting experience have been more fascinating than pretty much anything I’ve done in my life, and I’d like to think I’ve done some pretty cool shit. I also look at life so much differently, in a good way. I’m more patient, more empathetic, and have rediscovered my child-like wonder (which I really missed when I was in my bratty, confused, cocky 20s). If I never had a child, I’d still be me, though, and that’s important. And like life before Ollie, I continue pursuing my aspirations, challenging myself and exploring my hopes and fears. I think it’s a huge disservice to children when parents “give up” themselves and let the role of parenthood consume them entirely. Some people have kids to “complete” something that’s missing within themselves or their relationship. I think you really have to be your whole self at all times to truly nurture a child. The end.

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