Thursday, February 23, 2017

Guest Post: One of the Cool Girls (by Drew Arms)

Quick note: I'm happy to share this guest post by Drew Arms.  She's a college professor and mom.  And she's always a bright spot in my day when I chat with her at school drop off!  Thank you, Drew.

“Oh, they don’t talk to me.  I’m not one of the cool girls.”  My heart sank when my nine year old made this comment about some of her classmates.  She didn’t seem too sad about it, and she soon went on to talk about how “cool” her locker chandelier was.  But I felt a little sad.  In kindergarten, “cool” only applied to things, not people.  What is it that divides kids into the “cool” and “uncool”? 

Unfortunately, my perspective is pretty one-sided.  I wasn’t one of the cool girls either.  When I was in middle school, I understood this to mean that I didn’t have the right haircut (I didn’t have bangs when everyone else did), I didn’t wear the right clothes (no Esprit or Benetton for me; “Why would I buy you a t-shirt that costs $30 because it has “Benetton” on it?” my oh-so-practical mother asked), I was overweight (which automatically banished me from the cool group), I didn’t dance, cheerlead, or play soccer.  I spent much of middle and high school feeling a lack of approval. 

So, what makes a cool girl?  Cool girls, at least in my experience, are not necessarily mean girls as the movies would have you believe (though some are) but a select group whose parents socialize with one another, who do after-school activities together, who dress similarly, who close off their circle of friends pretty quickly and tightly, and who seem to find strength and identity in being part of this group. 

One of my college students astutely pointed out that labeling someone as “not cool” is the last socially acceptable way to discriminate.  Most of my daughter’s peers understand that you’re not supposed to say you don’t like someone because they’re overweight, or poor, or of another race.  But on the playground, you can ignore, tease, and belittle someone because they’re not cool, and that’s reason enough. 

Part of the reason that my daughter isn’t thought of as cool has nothing to do with her, but with me.  Her father and I don’t move in a lot of social circles and don’t aspire to; we’re happy homebodies. Also, my daughter and I are introverts, and introverts tend not to be in the cool crowd.   Introverts, being introverts, don’t feel the need to have or even want the group dynamic.  In fact, it’s tiring, it takes too much energy. 

Still I didn’t think any of this would be a convincing or comforting response to my daughter.  I didn’t want her to understand the girls’ treatment of her as a valid judgment on her.  That she lacked anything, or was somehow unacceptable.  What to say? 

“Hey, I wasn’t cool in school, but I turned out ok.” Or “You’re cool to me.”  Or “Who cares what they think or what they do?  You be you.  Why would you want to be a cool girl anyway?”

What a dumb question.  Everyone wants to be some version of “cool.”  Being cool is important.  I get it.  If your peers think you are cool, it’s a nice boost to your self-esteem.  And in this town, like many, being thought of as cool or popular really does have material benefits: the cool people hang out together, network, and land each other jobs, positions on boards, timeshares in Florida.  “Cool” often translates as important

But –  and I’m paraphrasing Aristotle here – being cool isn’t the same as being happy.  And even the cool people want to be happy.

So I could tell my daughter the truth: being cool is completely relative.  It’s dependent on other people’s perceptions, opinions and whims, which you can’t control, under ever-changing circumstances.  It also depends on your own self-perception.  If you think you’re cool, doesn’t that make you so?  Isn’t it cool to be unashamedly whoever you are? 

The overwhelming problem with putting any kind of premium on “coolness” is that it’s so very insular.  The more you turn inward, associating only with those like you, drawing your strength and values in validating the qualities of those like you, the less practice you have in displaying empathy, thinking critically, being open-minded and open-hearted with those not like you.  There is a dangerous mindset that accompanies this group-think, and many writers have commented on the adolescent dangers of peer pressure.  But the danger extends to the excluded, for even an outsider who dubs the popular girls “snobs” to cover the hurt of exclusion risks becoming someone who discriminates and rejects.  

Early in the novel Jane Eyre, the young Jane is excluded by the wealthy Reed family because she is poor and plain.  When Aunt Reed tells her children they are not to associate with Jane, Jane in turn cries out passionately and defiantly, “They are not fit to associate with me!”  She responds to their rejection of her by rejecting them.   I remember my college professor remarking, “You see, Jane is as hard-hearted, in her own way, as the Reeds.”  And there’s real vulnerability in that attitude – not just the risk of hurt feelings and low self-esteem but the threat of giving in to anger, pride, even violence.

What’s the answer? What are we as parents supposed to do about it?  Kids will always divide themselves into groups, and there will always be a hierarchy of those groups based on some criteria, and it will shape our children’s self-esteem. 

Well, it turns out, the answer is hanging on the wall of my daughter’s bedroom.  It’s a canvas, made by another one of my college students, that reads: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you know is fighting some kind of battle.”  This quotation has been attributed to almost every inspirational figure from Plato to Walt Disney.  I see it now as a cure to the dangers of “cool”.   And if “cool” is defined as “admirable,” “fashionable,” “acceptable” – well, cool!  It’s acceptable to be accepting of everyone you know, and then some.  The more we can convince our children that it’s cool to be openly kind and open-hearted, by lesson and example, the better.  By this standard, I hope both my daughter and I are one of the cool girls.

Drew Arms

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ireland or Bust

I have serious wanderlust.  Maybe it stems from being a military brat and moving every 3-4 years.  Or maybe it was the spur-of-the-moment trips I took with my family growing up, when my parents packed the six kids into the big van and took off for Disney or the Smoky Mountains.  

Whatever the origins, my wanderlust kicked into high gear in college, thanks to a summer trip to Europe.  My world was split wide open as I took in the history, culture, and food of different countries; I loved it all.  I spent a summer in London, and afterward, my friends and I backpacked through France, Italy, and Germany.  I had hardly any money, but it didn’t matter.  We figured out how to take advantage of free or cheap fun wherever we went.  We saved our pennies for giant steins of beer in Germany, fresh baguettes and cheese in France, and slices of pizza in Italy.  We washed our clothes in the hotel sinks, and tried to figure out what the toilet without water was for (it was a bidet, we later found out. Oops.) 

After college, I headed to Dublin, Ireland for grad school at Trinity College.  I quickly fell in love with the people and the country.  You never met a stranger in Ireland, and, being Irish myself, I felt a special kinship to the warm, welcoming people I met.  The days were long and lazy, and the city was my oyster.  My friends and I strolled from pub to pub, drinking Guinness and belting out David Gray songs.  Then we'd make our way to the clubs where we'd drink more Guinness and dance to George Michael and other 80s hits.  Of course, it wasn’t always easy.  I ran out of money and had to figure out how to pay my rent, I had to write lengthy papers on Irish politics, and I missed my family tremendously.

But, as I look back on that time now, I have such a sense of rosy nostalgia for those seemingly easy, carefree days when I wandered through the city without a care in the world.  My boyfriend, Seth (ha!), and I would talk on the phone whenever we could. He and my family came to visit, and we drove around the country in cars so tiny that we had to fold ourselves up like accordions to fit into them. We cruised through the countryside in our tiny cars, laughing and talking, as we dodged sheep and tractors on the winding Irish roads.   

Sometimes I forget that that was 18—18!—years ago.  A lot has happened since then. . . . My boyfriend and I got married and became adults, we had six kids, my Dad passed away, and life stresses grew along with us.  Still, the idea of international travel remained firmly rooted in my mind as the years passed.  Which is why, when I'm stressed or feeling restless, I look up flights to all kinds of places.  Could we take a family trip to Italy?  How much would that cost?  Let me just check as I lie here sandwiched between two sleeping girls.  Should we go to Boston to see my family? Maybe Seth and I can head to Napa for a long weekend?  Wouldn’t it be so great to pack some backpacks and passports, and head out the door to Europe?

Usually my travel fairytales end there, when I see the outrageous price of flights.  But one magical evening back in November, the stars aligned for us.  First off, Seth and I were BOTH AWAKE after the kids were asleep, which was a victory in and of itself.  We sat watching tv and sipping wine as I searched for flights for a spring trip.  Could we go to Dublin?  We always talked about taking the big girls when they reached the golden ages of 5-9…. Would the flights be outrageous?  What about the babies?  Could I leave the babies?

Then the flight price popped up.  $360 roundtrip.  I nearly fell off the couch; while still pricey, flights to Europe are never, ever that inexpensive.  I asked Seth to double check the dates and price, because I was convinced my eyes were playing tricks on me.  No, he said, that’s all right.  I’ve never seen flights that cheap in my life.  Neither had I.  We have to do it, he said.  Don't think about it too much or we won't book it.  Just book it and we’ll figure it out.  (Aside: this is why I love him.)  And so, at 11 p.m. one November night, we took a leap and bought tickets for us and the big girls to go to Dublin.  When we woke up the next morning, we felt a bit of--oh no what did we do--coupled with--we're really going to do it!    

As our travel dates draw nearer, I remain extremely excited and apprehensive about our trip.  I cannot wait to show the girls my old apartment, the neighborhood shop I walked to get groceries, and the coffee shops I used to study in.  I can’t wait to take them to the park I passed every day on my walk into the city to the university.  It was always teeming with kids, and now, almost 20 years later, my kids will be among those playing there.  I cannot believe it.  Then we'll go visit my friends, the Murphys, who gave me a warm welcome and soft place to land when I first arrived in Dublin on my Rotary scholarship.  I last saw them 13 years ago when they first traveled to the U.S. for my wedding. 

I know that we won't see everything, and that's precisely why I'm excited about the trip.  I have no agenda of things to see or do, and, quite honestly, I'm happy to sit on a park bench sipping coffee for most of the trip.  The pace will be relaxed and carefree.  One of the biggest highlights for me will be not having to tell the big girls—wait a minute, I have to change the baby.  Or wait a minute, let me get them to sleep first.  Or, no, not now.  I have to say, since Lucy turned 9, I am feeling the tween years looming closer and closer.  I don't want to look up in 3-4 years and feel like I've missed this precious time with her and her sisters.  I want to soak it all in.  I want to appreciate their curiosity, silliness, and joyfulness in experiencing new things without having to stop for diaper changes and naps.  

All that said, I am also so anxious about leaving my babies.  I remember the first time I left them for a few hours, it felt like someone had cut off my limbs.  It was physically painful.  I had been so consumed with caring with them, I honestly didn’t know who I was or what to do when I suddenly had some free time and free hands.  I called my mom crying that I just couldn't do it.  She reminded me that I didn't have to do it, and that the time would come when I would want to do it.  I think the time has come now that they're 2.  They're crazy, nonstop 2 year-olds like any others.  But, they're still my sweet babies and I will miss them. I’ll miss them shouting “mama look at this! Mama LOOK AT ME!”  I’ll miss seeing them toddle out together in the morning, squinting from the sun and looking disheveled from a long night's heavy sleep.  I'll miss them shouting out from their cribs at bedtime--no, no mama, I love YOU!  I love YOU!"  The only thing that makes it easier is that I’ll be with the big girls and Seth.  

I've clearly spent a lot of time mentally preparing for this trip, as evidenced from the internal dialogue above.  I have not, on the other hand, spent any time doing any physical packing or prep work for this trip.  We have only booked a hotel for the first night, but that's how I prefer to travel--without an itinerary or definite plans. It gives us the freedom to set the pace as we go and change our plans if needed.  That said, I should probably go ahead and do some packing. . . . 

Well, friends, wish us luck.  Our trip is fast approaching, and while our bags aren’t packed, we’re ready to go (I think?!).  Dublin, Murphy family, Butler's coffee shop, and pints of Guinness, we’ll be seeing you soon.  Get ready Ireland, because here we come.  

Thursday, February 2, 2017

When Your Baby Becomes a Big Sister

When each of my big girls became a big sister, I never really thought about how young they were when they were thrust into that new role.  However, as each of my girls has reached the age when her older sister became a “big” sister, it has hit me how little those big sisters really were. 

This happened just the other day when I realized that the triplets are now the same age that Emily was when we found out we’d be having three babies (did you follow that?).  That day also happened to be Emily’s 5th birthday.  I ate lunch with her at school to celebrate, and she glowed as she adjusted her birthday crown and chatted with her friend.  She was so grownup.  She was so happy.  She was finally a whole hand—5!—and she was thrilled.  After lunch, we said our goodbyes and my husband and I headed to the car. 

Suddenly, I was crying.  Hard. 

I thought about how young Emily was when we told her we were having not one, not two, but three babies.  I thought about my high-risk pregnancy, and how she patiently sat through countless doctors’ appointments with me.  How she helped the ultrasound techs squeeze the warm jelly on my giant round belly at my weekly ultrasound.  How she would sit tucked behind my legs and back, in a cozy little space she called “Mom’s pocket,” as I laid on the couch on bedrest, counting each day as I neared closer to viability.  I thought about all the times I had said, no, wait, after the babies came home from the hospital.  I thought about all the times I’d said not now, I have to change the babies.  I have to feed the babies.    

I wondered: had I asked too much of her and her sisters? Did I expect her to be bigger than she was?  Did I miss things because I was busy with the babies?  Did I miss her being a baby? 

Of course, all this looking back is just that—looking back.  I can’t recapture that time or go back and do things differently.  I did the best I could and I continue to do so.  However, reflecting on how fast my babies became big sisters does bring a few things into sharp focus for me.  First, it reminds me that my girls are resilient.  My big girls’ world was turned upside down with the arrival of their three preemie sisters, and they carried on as usual.  That taught me that they can handle whatever curveballs life throws at them and roll with it.  I think that that will serve them well in life, because, as we all know, things never really go “according to plan.”  Second, I think having younger siblings has taught my girls that love multiplies with the arrival of a new baby.  While I may not always have enough hands to hold everyone, I think they know that I love them all deeply.  I hope that they’ve learned that as your family grows, the love does too, and there’s enough room for everyone.  Third, I think that my big girls are thoughtful, empathetic people in large part because they are big sisters.  They have been forced to be patient and helpful, and that’s a good thing.       

All that said, I hope my big girls know that they don’t always have to be big.  They need me to snuggle with them, talk with them, and hold them close. Because at the end of the day, even though they’re big sisters, they will always be my babies.

Happy birthday, sweet Emily.  I love you and all your sisters.