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Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year, New Rules

It’s no secret that I am ruled by the rules in my life. The rules I follow cause me much grief, the rules I don’t follow cause me much guilt. Yet, I continue to proclaim my rules loud and proud and denounce their demise with my tail between my legs. I have lived long enough to know that many people have rules. But not many people are as vocal about them as I am.

I have one rule that my fellow mother friends can’t wrap their heads around. It’s contrary to anything that makes sense, which of course, makes it a typical Betsy Rule. It’s the one that prohibits phones in the bedroom.

Perhaps my most stringent rule (next to the extra-cup-of-ice-on-the-side rule) is getting eight hours of sleep a night. And because that is a non-negotiable, I have to create other rules to insure that it is not violated.

And nothing ruins a good night sleep faster than a phone.

I have a landline phone next to my bed but I turned off the ringer when my kids started staying out later than I stayed up. Of course, I had to first break the I-never-go-to-sleep-until-everyone’s-home rule. And though the older I got, the easier that rule was to break, there was no sense rescinding a rule if I couldn’t enjoy the newfound freedom. I found myself tossing and turning waiting for the phone to ring to tell me that someone had gotten arrested, gotten in an accident, gotten a flat tire, wasn’t coming home or was coming home with three strangers who would be sleeping in the basement.

But alas, it's the anticipation of the call, not the call itself, that wreaks havoc on my brain. In actuality, I've been pretty lucky. I’m not sure I have ever gotten a phone call after I’ve gone to bed. But then again, how would I know?

My friends are shocked that I, who am never more than three inches away from my cell phone, leave it downstairs at night. But, if it’s within reach, it might ring. If I don’t know about it, it never happened.

Recently I’ve broken my rule. I started taking my cell phone to bed with me. I play a half hour of Word Streak with my second favorite husband, Tony Hargraves, our way of kissing each other goodnight. I spend another half hour reading my Book of the Month selection on my Kindle for book club, check my e-mails for updates from my friend Laura and then turn the phone face down, ringer off on my bedside table.

When I wake up in the morning, I read The Skimm, play a game or two of Word Streak, check my e-mail for work assignments and head to the gym.

Unless of course, I happen to turn my phone over in the middle of the night.

My spouse woke up at 4 this morning to take the train to our nation’s capital for a breakfast meeting. Usually he is up and out and I don’t even stir. But today I did. As he stumbled down our creaky stairs, Marmaduke on his heels, I made the fatal mistake of checking my phone.

And there was a message from the daughter at 12:33 am, who after landing in New Orleans, learned that her luggage was lost. I imagined her cursing my insensitivity for not responding to her late-night text and harbored that guilt until my mind started racing around the implications of the missing bag. I thought about everything that was crammed in that 49-pound suitcase and wondered again why she needed so many clothes for a ten-day visit home. I thought about the books she pilfered from our living room shelves and tossed in her suitcase before zipping it up. I thought about the three loads of laundry I had kindly folded for her the night before. I thought of the overpriced make-up she had to purchase because mine was hidden, and the shoes she wouldn’t be able to wear on New Year’s Eve. I thought about which electronic devices she may have stashed between her brother’s stolen sweat pants and wondered whether she had an extra toothbrush back at home. I started adding up costs in my head and made mental notes of what to claim and how to price the priceless items that would never be seen again.

A half-hour later I convinced myself that it was not my problem. It was not my suitcase. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing I should do. There was nothing I was going to do. Except worry and feel sorry for my poor, dear almost 24 year-old grown daughter.

But first, I googled Southern Cal to find out the score of the Holiday Bowl game that started after I went to bed. My middle child had flown to San Diego at 6 am on his birthday three days earlier because his job at school is filming and editing football tapes. I really don’t follow college football, but when I heard his team lost by two points, I started fretting about that. Poor boy. It would have been oh, so nice to win the final game of his senior year. And now would his final New Year's as a college student be ruined by the agony of defeat? My mind whirled and swirled as the sky began to brighten.

And so, I played a game of Word Streak to stop the chatter, but started thinking about the dishes I had prepared for New Year's Eve with Gary and Michelle and Tom and Jean. I started googling recipes fearing I hadn't made enough. I started worrying about my lack of sleep because I never, ever lie awake in the middle of the night. And then I started worrying that waking in the middle of the night was going to be my new thing. But then I relaxed, realizing it was only because I had broken the no phone in the bedroom rule.

I fell back into a deep sleep, waking at 9 am in a panic -- the precise hour that my water aerobics class began. So, instead, I doggedly donned my sneakers and went to the gym, lifting iron and doing squats to make up for the copious amount of calories I was planning to ingest today.

Before my new 1,250 calorie-a-day rule takes effect tonight at midnight.

Happy New Year! And may all your resolutions be reasonable!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Kids... they'll drive you to drink!

Of all the many sacrifices I’ve made for my children, (stop rolling your eyes, you three) perhaps the most pointless was raising them alcohol-free. Me, not them.

I was a party girl in my youth, a clear-cut fact to which many who know me can clearly attest. I drank my fair share of bourbon and beer (and vodka and tequila and wine and grain alcohol punch…)  But I drank for fun and fun only. I didn’t drink when I was sad or lonely or afraid or unhappy. I didn’t drink during the day (unless of course it was on the beach in Brigantine or at the Fall Ball in Shippensburg) or ever when I was alone. I drank with friends – at parties, in bars, at concerts. But never, ever alone.  To me, alcohol was an enhancer. A booster. A bonus.

The day my oldest child was born, I decided I wasn’t going to drink anymore. Actually, I quit drinking as soon as I knew the seed had taken, but that was a mandate, not a choice. No good mother of my generation drank while gestating. (Unlike the good mothers of the previous generation whose nightly gin and tonics were didn’t seem to do any of us any harm.)

The reasoning (if you could call it that), behind my self-imposed prohibition was that with a tongue as sharp as mine, my children were surely going to suffer enough embarrassment through the years. If I added alcohol to the mix, the things that would come spewing out of my mouth and into their psyche would certainly damage them beyond repair.

And then it just became a rule. For thirteen years I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol. I wish I could say that for thirteen years I didn’t wake up a single morning regretting a single word I had said. Or that for thirteen years I was calm, cool and collected and never, ever flipped out over anything. But, alas, the lesson I learned was that alcohol, or the lack of it, had nothing to do with my averse reaction to raising children.

When I turned 40, I left my family and went to an all-inclusive resort with twelve girlfriends. While they gulped their Bahama Mamas, I stayed true to my own Mama rule and sipped diet cokes. But six years later when we planned a melee in Mexico, I thought long and hard about my rule. As I tend to do, I talked to everyone and their uncle asking if they thought I should start drinking again. I went through my whole history, assuring new friends who had never known me as a drinker, that I did not have a problem. At least not an alcohol problem. And the overwhelming response was along the lines of, “Forget your stupid rule and start drinking again!”

And so I did.

For the rest of the child-rearing years I imbibed only when the kids were not around. I didn't drink often. I never drank at home. I never drank during the day or alone or for any other reason but to have fun.

And then they got old. And so did I.

Yesterday, the third child returned home for Christmas vacation. They came in shifts this year, but still with a frightening force. My quiet and  peaceful home has turned into a war zone. There are shoes and jackets and backpacks and suitcases and unwrapped Christmas presents and dirty dishes and hair in the sink and puppy dog eyes begging for bagels. And maybe just a twenty for gas. I’ll pay you back. I’ll venmo you.

I promised myself I’d be ready for the onslaught of the offspring. All the gifts would be purchased and placed under the tree. The refrigerator would be stocked with all their favorite foods. The dog would be bathed to circumvent choruses of, “Get off! You smell!” and the house would be clean, oh so clean so it wouldn’t look so messy when they descended upon it. I wouldn't flip out about anything. For any reason. Because there should be nothing but happiness surrounding the holiday season.

Of course none of that happened. I had freelance work to do, gifts to buy, a tree to decorate, spinach lasagna to make, a trip to Philadelphia to take and a father-in-law with a broken hip.

As I sat at my desk pecking out some fairly mundane headlines for a brochure, I heard the back door slam. And then again. And again. And then the dog barked and the front doorbell rang and the spouse came home and then the spouse left to go Christmas shopping and then bags rustled and bottles clanked and the basement filled with the scents and sounds of friends home from college.

The daughter emerged with a bottle of wine, a full glass, an empty one and a raised eyebrow.

"What?" I barked.

“Drink?” she smiled.

“NO!” I bellowed. “I have way too much to do. And besides. It's a Tuesday night.”

“Relax, Mom,” the daughter said.

Any mother out there can tell you that any child that says “Relax, Mom,” when Mom is stressed to the max, is looking for a punch in the face. Even if it is Christmas season.

But of course, I didn’t punch her in the face. Instead I ranted and raved and reiterated Every.Single.Thing I had to do before Christmas, the holiday I profess to hate like no other.

To which the daughter replied, “Have you ever thought of getting yourself a prescription for Xanax?”

I spun my desk chair around in fury and barreled into the kitchen where I could hear the escalating joy in the basement. I grabbed two Chocolate Calling Santa Clauses, one meringue cookie and a chocolate chip brownie and shoved them all down my throat at once. I looked over my shoulder to see the daughter dangling the wine glass.

“You sure, Mom?”

Three glasses later, giggling with the daughter, I didn't care how many kids were in the basement. I didn't cringe when I heard the kitchen cabinets open and shut. I didn't care that Leo had one less gift than Max. And I didn't care that the undecorated tree was tilting precariously toward the window. 

But I did care enough to consider what their childhood would have been like had I not waited until they were grown to have my first "take the edge off" drink. No wonder so many of my friends have a glass of wine every night before dinner. No wonder they look at me strangely when I confess to my nonsensical flip-outs and rages. No wonder they don't feel their insides shaking when their kids re-descend upon them.

Thanks be to wine. 

And a side of Xanax.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Teach Your Children Well

Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you. 
-Graham Nash

The daughter calls me Every. Single. Day. Those who know me, know I’d much rather text than talk on the phone. Those who love me would rather hear my voice than receive a message. And so I graciously answer the phone and talk. At least until it’s time to chop my spouse’s dinner or clean a toilet or write a blog.

The oldest child, who is no longer a child, but doesn’t want me to find out, is in the tail end of a two-year stint with a program called Teach for America. College graduates, who are not necessarily looking for careers in education, are placed in schools in low-income communities around the country in hopes of making a difference somewhere. Somehow. The daughter, who majored in Peace, War and Defense is working in the educationally-challenged but culturally-charged and fun-filled city of New Orleans. Not a bad place for a 23 year-old who loves good food, cheap drinks and live music. Oh, and kids, too. On a good day, that is.

Our daily conversations have run the gamut from, “This is what I was born to do!” to “This is what I imagine Hell to be.”

As her friends in the program are deciding which law schools they are going to attend, which high-paying jobs they’re going to apply for and which boys are worth following to new cities, the daughter’s brain has been banging against the bones in her head as she deliberates over what to do, where to live and how to afford the rest of her life.

And every day I get to hear her rapidly-changing mind at work.

“Definitely taking the LSATs,” she mused on Monday.

“Goa, India. I’m going there,” she said on Tuesday.

“I’m thinking of a job in corporate America where I can make a lot of money but still do good for people,” she cogitated on Wednesday.

“I’m going to teach in Malaysia for a year,” she threatened on Thursday.

“I’m definitely, 100 percent moving home,” she finalized on Friday.

That night I tossed and turned, ruminating about the daughter’s future. And my place in it. I could feel the stairs shake as I imagined her barreling up to her attic bedroom at 3 am on a work night, after an evening of watching just-one-more episode of The Affair. I envisioned the jockeying of cars in front of the house and the inevitable, “Would you take my car for an oil change?” I saw her puppy dog eyes as she begged for a cash advance, or better yet, an interest-free, forgivable loan. I heard her sighs as the refrigerator door slammed shut. I thought of new hiding places for my make-up remover and Jo Malone perfume. I devised a plan for containing her shoes and scarves and coats and books and more books that never make it past the ground floor. I made up consequences for hair left in the drain, clothes left in the dryer and dishes left in the sink. And knew that I’d never enforce them.

Meanwhile, the monologue marching through the daughter's head 1313 miles away was undoubtedly a bit different. Can I possibly move back home after six years of independence? Would sleeping in my lumpy twin-sized childhood bed be worth the $30,000 I think I will, but know I won’t be able to save? Could I really subject myself to my mother’s grousing and complaining and butting in – not to mention the way she flings her arms and makes all that noise with those awful, clanging, silver bangle bracelets that she never, ever takes off? Would it be worth having to extend common courtesies like checking in, cleaning my room, saying ‘Good Morning,’ and God forbid, shoveling snow?

But the daughter, unlike her mother, is a very adaptable soul. So, I’m sure that dizzying dialogue dissipated and was rapidly replaced with a more socially conscious debate. Can I really spend another year getting so little out of giving so much? Does what I do even matter? Will making millions guarantee happiness? Am I sacrificing my own life trying to make someone else’s better? Is changing the course of one child’s destiny in the course of a lifetime enough? Will I regret not applying to law school or the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to not working on Wall Street or on Hillary’s campaign? Am I good enough, strong enough, brave enough…stupid enough to continue on in this profession?

And every afternoon when that familiar phone number showed up on my caller ID, I'd brace myself for whatever the day would bring. I have encouraged, lamented, advised and debated. I have absolutely agreed with the very idea I strongly negated 24 hours later. All because that’s what the daughter needed to hear.

I finally learned, with the “I’m 100 percent moving home,” declaration that the best thing to do is to grin and bear it.

Because tomorrow is always another day.

“Mom!” the daughter shrieked the following evening. “You’re never going to believe it! I’ve been hoping and praying for a sign -- something to just tell me what to do. And I got it! I GOT MY SIGN! I was walking home and there was this piece of paper and I picked it up and I uncrumpled it and it said…YOU ARE A TEACHER.”

I didn’t bother to ask if she was on her way to or from Happy Hour. I thought I’d save those kind of questions for when she’s living under my roof. And working in human relations, or public policy, or as a nanny on the Upper East Side.