Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What Happens On The Playground...

This morning’s talk shows were all abuzz with the news of a recent J. Crew ad in which the young son of one of the company’s executives is pictured sporting pink toenail polish along with the comfy cotton clothes that have made the brand so popular. Apparently, the ad has sparked tons of controversy, with a Fox News commentator saying that the parent’s decision to allow the boy to wear toenail polish could result in years of therapy for the child.

After I got over my initial disgust that major network news programs were covering this story, I thought about a recent outing with my 11-month-old daughter. In our neighborhood, which rightly claims more strollers than cars, the playground was the place to be on the first freakishly warm day of the season. My little girl squealed with delight as we approached a group of children playing on the miniature monkey bars. The moment I freed her from her stroller, she wobbled over to the group to join in on the fun.

She received a warmhearted reception and was invited to participate in a game of “Touch My Face.” The parents formed a protective barrier around the tots, and secretly hoped the fun didn’t result in their child catching some annoying bug that required a doctor’s visit and antibiotics. But my daughter and her tiny playmates were oblivious to our discomfort and continued putting their grimy little fingers in each other’s eyes, noses and ears. At one point, I noticed my daughter with a little boy’s fingers in her mouth. If her father had been there, he would have locked her in her room until her thirtieth birthday. It didn’t matter to these new playground pals that their group was as diverse as the UN. All that mattered was that everyone was at their eye level and babbled the same peculiar syllables.

But when do things change for us? When do we lose the innocence we have when our lives are scheduled around our nap times? What makes us start noticing our differences and judging each other for them? Eventually these kids will realize that among their group one of them is a Jewish boy, another has an African-American mother and a Puerto Rican father and another is being raised by gay parents. But hopefully by then it won’t matter.

My daughter’s world is already very different from the world her father and I grew up in. She is living among people of all different faiths, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds. Hopefully she will even call some of these people her friends, without giving much thought to what makes them different.

In my opinion, the problem with this news story is not with J. Crew or the model’s parents for letting him have his toenails painted pink, but with the rest of us for caring. Kids don't think about the world as gay and straight or black and white until we teach them to. Rather than criticize the mother for letting her son play with her polish, let’s give her credit for the fact that she is actually spending quality time with him. As far as I know, there are no studies that link toenail polish with sexual orientation. But if there are, does it really matter?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Accidental Housewife

I never wanted to be a housewife. It’s a thankless job where there are no vacations or holidays. Not to mention I find the idea of cooking and cleaning for other people without pay especially loathsome. In an age where women can be anything from a NASCAR driver to Secretary of State, why would anyone willingly choose to stay at home all day dusting and folding laundry?

I should say that my narrow-minded views are based on images of TV housewives – women like Carol Brady who lived in the mythical land of Suburbia and wielded super-human powers. They could solve a family crisis, help their kids with homework and prepare a delicious meal in less than thirty minutes, while looking absolutely gorgeous. They were also always white. To a black girl from Chicago, the concept couldn’t be any more foreign. I grew up with a single, working mother and aspired to be more like Claire Huxtable than June Cleaver. In my dreams, I always thought I would be a successful wife/mother/businesswoman, married to a handsome/rich/powerful man with two adorable/smart/well-behaved children.

I thought I was on my way to making my dream a reality, achieving things that most of my single girlfriends thought were unattainable. I had just been promoted at work, I was engaged to a wonderful man and we were expecting our first child. But I barely had time to enjoy my good fortune when I was struck with a devastating blow. After almost ten years in a job I loved to hate, I was being laid off. I complained about the early meetings and weekend business trips the entire time, but the salary and frequent flier miles were undeniable perks. For so many years, my job defined me. I was accustomed to getting paid a lot of money to talk to people about television and I was terrified that I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. In the blink of an eye, my identity had been stripped and all the hard work I had invested into building my career meant nothing.

After the birth of my daughter, I was na├»ve in thinking that I could pick up my career where I left off. I was now competing with recent college grads and industry veterans for a handful of open positions in my field. While my husband and I saw our daughter as a blessing, hiring managers saw her as a reason to keep me out of their companies. I actually saw a potential employer write down “new mom” in her notes during an interview for a position for which I was more than qualified. Needless to say, I never heard from her again.

After months of a fruitless job search, my husband suggested the unthinkable – why not save money on childcare and stay home with our daughter until things got better? I was admittedly terrified to hand my daughter over to a complete stranger, but how would I be able to stay home every day without losing my mind, or drinking heavily? I decided to swallow my pride and tackle my new position with the same fervor I had invested in all of my years in sales. If I was going to be a housewife, I was going to be the best. I started reading anything I could get my hands on that had to do with parenting and homemaking. I told myself that not having a 9-to-5 would make it a breeze to manage our household. With all the free time I would have on my hands I could do things that would put Martha Stewart to shame.

However, I didn’t take into account the fact that my infant daughter had not read any of the articles I used to develop my plan and had no regard for my new schedule whatsoever. She could care less if I had dinner ready by 6:00 or if my husband had clean socks to wear to work. In just a few months, she learned that she could get anything she wanted by simply screaming at the top of her lungs. How could someone who weighed less than ten pounds be so sinister?

At that point, I was convinced that being the perfect housewife was like touching your nose with your tongue: something that only a few freakishly weird people could do. Those women on TV were not real and there was no sense trying to be like them. I was able to salvage what was left of my self-esteem until I began to notice that there were women all around me who were actually doing the perfect housewife thing, perfectly. I took my daughter to play dates with kids who lived in spotless apartments and had moms who made delicious homemade treats. We stood next to thin, gorgeous women in Mommy & Me yoga class who smiled as if they weren’t stressed out about the laundry that waited for them at home. I felt inferior. My hard work has always paid off in the form of good grades, college acceptance letters and promotions at work. Now the job that should come most natural seemed impossible and I began to take it out on the people around me.

In order to save my sanity and my marriage, I knew I had to turn the stereotype of the good housewife on its perfectly polished head. With the help of my supportive husband, I am learning to celebrate my accomplishments and not compare myself to others. I’m realizing that no one will kill me for a little dust on the floor if it gives me more time to play with my daughter or chat with a friend. It’s ok to order take-out once in a while so my husband and I can catch up. I’m learning that being the perfect housewife can mean whatever you want and I’m thankful that to my family it doesn’t mean vacuuming in heels.

Friday, April 8, 2011

If I Want Your Opinion, I'll Give It To You!

If you see me on the street with my infant daughter and notice something horribly wrong, do me a favor and keep it to yourself. Chances are, I already know. And if I don’t, I’m pretty sure I won’t want to hear about it from you! There’s nothing that bugs me more than when people feel the need to offer “advice” to parents about their children, especially when it’s unsolicited. It seems to happen to me all the time. Random strangers have approached me to tell me that my daughter should be wearing shoes (even though her feet never touch the ground), that I was burping her too hard or that I wasn’t holding her properly, and frankly I’m sick of it.

I hit my boiling point last week during a trip to the grocery store. As most parents of small children know, every trip outside of the house is an adventure. You never know which of your child’s personalities will come along for the ride. So, I knew that I had approximately 30 minutes to complete my shopping before my sweet, innocent angel turned into a cranky monster frantically trying to escape from the shackles of her Baby Bjorn.

On this trip, I managed to get through my entire shopping list without incident. I beamed with pride as I approached the register, having successfully avoided an in-store tantrum. But my happy bubble burst when a voice from behind said with disgust, “You know she has her mouth on the shopping cart. It’s filthy!”

I whipped my head around to face the person who dared steal my moment of satisfaction. In that instant, I thought of a string of expletives I could use to rip into her, forcing her to leave the store in tears. But since that would have required way more energy than I could muster, I simply smirked and replied, “Thank you” through clenched teeth.

I’m not usually this angry. Under normal circumstances I would be delighted that someone thought enough to save my daughter from a germ-infested shopping cart, but on this day I just couldn’t manage to see things that way. This woman’s comment was a personal attack on my ability to parent. Of course I knew the shopping cart was filthy. I brought it in from outside for crying out loud. But cut me a little slack. I had kept a vigilant eye on my little girl the entire time we were in the store. I risked public humiliation to entertain her with a less-than-Tony-worthy performance of “My Favorite Things.” Now that we were in the checkout line, there was no way I could unload the shopping cart, search for my coupons, make sure the bagger didn’t load the carton of milk on top of my bagels (again!) and keep my daughter from licking the shopping cart at the same time. I mean what did she want from me? My teething daughter had been waking up at regular two-hour intervals since 2 a.m. and I was running on fumes. The fact that I knew that “La” was the note that followed “So” was a friggin’ miracle. And to be honest, I would much rather my daughter quietly ingest a little bacteria than scream her head off and attract the attention of everyone in the store. So thank you Monday morning quarterback mom, but I’ve got things under control here!

I only have nine months of parenting experience under my belt and I’m still adjusting to being responsible for another life. I’m already paranoid that I’m being scrutinized by her grandparents who are anxiously waiting for me to screw up so they can swoop in and revoke my parenting privileges, and now I have to worry about complete strangers on the street too?

While I’m sure this woman thought she was helping, her words just made me feel more insecure. I would rather someone tell me that my jeans make me look fat than tell me I’m doing something wrong with regards to my daughter. Where are people like her when I’m doing something right to shout words of encouragement like, “Carrying a 20-pound baby three blocks in the snow with laundry detergent and cat litter? Impressive!” Why don’t they express their disgust with things that really matter, like “Do diapers really cost that much?” I’m sure in time I’ll be able to take Grandma’s criticisms with a grain of salt, but I guarantee I’ll never want to hear the advice of the woman behind me in line at the grocery store.

Let's Hear It For The Finishers

People who set goals and actually accomplish them make me sick. I call them “Finishers” and they are the most annoying people in the world. I hate the way they flaunt their broken records and their successful weight loss in the faces of the rest of us losers while they bask in everyone else’s admiration of their sticktoitness.

I’ve never been able to join the ranks of these elite overachievers. Rather, I belong to another group I like to call the “Deficients.” I set plenty of goals. I’ve got goals coming out of my ass. I generally intend to achieve them. I even buy beautiful notebooks to write them all down. However, the initial excitement tends to diminish somewhere on the path to completion. In my mind I’ve envisioned myself as a successful ballerina, tennis player, writer and even a DJ, but I’m ashamed to say that I have yet to make any of these things into more than a mere fantasy.

While it’s never really bothered me before, this problem has become more disconcerting than ever now that I’m a mother of an infant daughter. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to tell her to finish her vegetables, to finish cleaning her room or finish high school with a straight face if I can’t even finish East of Eden. I’ll lose all credibility. I can’t give up on being a mother the way I gave up on knitting my baby’s receiving blanket.

On the bright side, all of my wavering is helping me to collect the makings of what could become a pretty awesome garage sale. There have to be some cost-conscious “Finishers” looking to save money on gently used GMAT study books, athletic equipment and turntables.

I’d like to think that there is some kind of clinical explanation for why I’ve managed to give up on just about everything I’ve ever set my mind to. There must be reason why I changed my major four times in college. Could it be that I’m so afraid of success that I don’t even want to bother trying to work towards my goals? What’s the use in becoming famous when I’m too shy to handle the attention that comes along with it? I mean I’ve finished all the things that really matter – I managed to settle on a major and receive a Bachelor’s Degree from a major university, I moved 700 miles from home and made a life for myself in one of the toughest cities in the world and I survived hours of painful labor to give birth to a healthy little girl. That’s got to be worth more than a stupid blanket.

I may not ever be able to call myself a Finisher, but I am trying to be less of a Deficient every day. My first step will be to finish this post!