Responsibility & Love. What’s a mother to do?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday, I got into a row with my older daughter, the 11- almost 12-year old.  It left me feeling torn between teaching a child to take responsibility and helping her be happy and successful. I realized that I might not be doing a good job of taking care of her heart.


She had a school band concert last night, for which she must wear the requisite performance clothing. That is, black and white. My daughter does not like to wear anything remotely “dressy”, and so, over the years we’ve worked out a quirky combination of “performance clothes” that she can live with — black culottes, white flowy blouse that’s too big, white camisole (stretchy), and then black knee-high socks and black shoes.

Since this is the second band concert of the year, I didn’t worry about the wardrobe, because we’d worked all that out for the first concert. And since she never wears any of those clothes at any other time, I didn’t even have it in my mind that there would be a problem.

Yesterday, I was tired. I took a 20-minute nap sitting up in a chair after the kids came home from school. I did this, knowing that when I woke up I’d have to whip up a quick dinner for my saxophone player, make myself presentable, and then dash off with younger daughter to swimming lessons.  During this nap and before, she was busy playing on her ipod.

About 20  minutes before departure  time, Olivia remembers she has to dress for the concert.

Total panic ensues.  Her first instinct is to ask me where her clothes are.

But I am fixing dinner now, and I have seen the state of affairs in her closet, which means, the burden should be on her to find them.  Which I suggest as calmly as possible.  This sets off the atti-tude.  She marches upstairs and returns 2 minutes later declaring they are “not there. I don’t know where any of it is”.  I ask what she is looking for.  She replies “I don’t even know what I wore last time!” And so we go a round on trying to remember what that was.  I suggest she look again, that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the blouse in the closet.  She returns. No, not there.  “you must have put it in your closet”.  Ahh, the ole “it’s not my problem” tone.

At this point, I’m getting a little peeved that she is not really trying.

This is not new. I suspect it is classic 11-year old stuff. I hope it is. It is definitely classic for my eldest.   I have this mantra I repeat to her whenever she gets into the “I can’t find it” panic. Which is surprisingly often.  The mantra is,

“You have to believe, first”

because then you have a reason to keep looking.  It has rung true every single time.  Other examples: looking in the refrigerator for the ____; looking in the hockey bag for the missing ____; looking in the laundry basket for the favorite pair of pants I know I just washed; etc.  If you believe what you are looking for, then you will keep looking and find it.

So, I peddled out “you know what I’m going to say…”you have to believe it is there”.  But we’re tight on time. So, I snippily add, “I will go look for it, but if I find it, there will be a consequence…I will take something away!”

The ipod, and she knows it.

I march upstairs and find without much effort, buried in her pants drawer, the black culottes. Next up was the blouse. It took a bit more work, but it was hanging in her closet. There were only FOUR other items hanging in the closet, but the blouse was hung on a hangar with another shirt she never wears.  I’m 2-2! Feeling rather victorious!

Next, she says, through a red blotchy face, “What about socks? I don’t know where any socks are!”

Oh, my.  That one did me in.  The back story here, is that she never puts her socks away. I find them all over the house. Next to the couch, under the bathroom cabinet, below the breakfast bar, in the basement, scattered about the floor. The pairs are often separated.  I have a large sock ‘orphanage’ where I keep socks missing their mates until they come through the laundry. 90% of the socks in there belong to my oldest.

At this point, I completely lose it. I tell her, “I had things-to-do-before-leaving-myself-that-I-am-not-getting-done-because-you-have-waited-until-the-last-minute-and-if-you-gave-a-rat’s-ass-about-your-socks-you-would-do-a-better-job-putting-them-in-the-laundry-basket-every-day-I-just-washed-a-black-pair-of-yours-had-you-put-your-clean-clothes-away-properly-you-could-find-them-right-now”  I did say “rat’s ass”, darn-it-all.

I pull out a pair of mine for her.

And for the final say, I add “and what about your hair? Now we don’t have time to fix your braids!”

She goes downstairs, sheepishly, and comes back to tell me that she turned off the burner on the quesadillas for me, and that they’re not too-too-burned.

I mutter a “thank you”.

And then I left to take my younger daughter to swimming lessons.

I was ticked.

I was ticked that she waited until the last minute.

But I was also ticked at myself for forgetting to anticipate this likely scenario.

I do hate that she leaves her socks all over the house. It drives me crazy that her clothes are all over her bedroom, clean and dirty alike. I try not to micromanage that stuff, but when push comes to shove, it really gets under my skin.

The look on her face, after the crisis had been averted, was one of shame and disappointment. I believe she felt like she had disappointed her mother. Again.

I know that look. I wore it often growing up.  I fought the feeling of disappointing my mother throughout my teens and young-adulthood.  I could never-ever do enough to please my mother.  I heard my mother’s disapproving voice in my head long after living on my own in my 20’s.

I so don’t want to do that to my daughter.

She is my eldest.  I have high standards. I want her to try hard. To do her best. To be herself. To be happy. To be polite. To be comfortable to be herself. To make mistakes and be able to learn from them.  To be free to laugh. To be able to laugh at herself.  I want this for both daughters, to be clear, but I think it’s hardest on the oldest.


Scenes like this one last night tell me I might be doing something wrong. Where is that line between teaching a child to take responsibility and giving them that responsibility? She seemed too young to not help out.  Truth is, I wished I had just gotten everything ready for her because she would really have appreciated it.  Should I have set out her clothes? Would I have done that if her room wasn’t such a mess? I do not like going in her room because it makes me unhappy. I wish she were neater. Or do I wish I required her to be neater?

More than anything, I want her to feel loved.  Not pushed.

But I want her to take responsibility.

Must they be mutually exclusive?

The Happiness of Having Enough


In “The Happiness Project” which I read a few weeks ago, one of the concepts that most resonated with me was the concept of “underbuying”.  That is, not buying enough of something at one time. I am not a minimalist, but I have always under bought.  I have begun to see the many ways this makes my life harder and more frustrating and ultimately feeds my unhappiness and discontent.

I can remember being a young adult — probably 23 — and finding a pair of shoes I really liked and thought were comfortable (I have struggled with finding the right shoes pretty much my whole life — but that’s another entry) and my mother was around and she remarked, “why don’t you buy several pairs of them if you like them so much”.  That concept was foreign to me. It still is.  Why would I have EXTRA of something?

I never do.  I usually have just run out of something. That is my m.o.

As a newly married woman, I remember my husband noticing that I was always needing to run to the bank machine and he would go once a week.  I would get $20.00 from the bank machine; He would get $200.  It honestly NEVER crossed my mind before then to get even $50 at once, let alone $100.  Now, as a wife, mother and two children and the person almost exclusively responsible for the purchase of everything in the house, I still only get $100 from the bank machine, and that is usually every two weeks or so.  My husband kindly asks me in between, “how much money can I give you today”.  I don’t want him to give me money; its all the same money anyway.  Hard as I try, I still rarely get alot of cash from the bank machine.  When I do have it, I don’t spend more, but I do feel better reaching into my wallet and not stressing that I might have to use my credit card for the $3 in cookies I needed for the hockey carpool.  And no, I don’t use a debit card. I’m old fashioned in that way.  Or masochistic.  Definitely masochistic.

So, I under-bank.

I also underbuy at the grocery store.  I make a menu plan and a grocery list to support it every Monday. I go to the grocery store and buy what I need for M-F usually; the weekends are often so mixed up I don’t bother. Plus, I loathe this task, and I secretly hope my husband will rescue me from the daily dinner grind on Sat-Sun; he usually does, but not without some price to be paid for his “creativity” in the kitchen.  I’ve actually been pretty proud of my organized method.  I buy what I need for the week and that’s it. I don’t spend more money than necessary. Pretty practical stuff, eh?

But that leaves me little wiggle room for change and unexpected events.  What about the fact that my children are very active and sometimes very hungry?  My 9-year old swimmer likes to eat a snack after school, then a little mini dinner before swimming and a mini-dinner after school.  My 11-year old hockey player, is ravenous after practice.  What if the weather is just right and we all head out for an afteroon of skiing? My organized “meal plan” doesn’t well account for this.  My “snack” supplies are gone before Thursday and the options up to then are paltry.

Recently, on a crazy whim, I purchased a box of 72 bagel-bites from Costco.  Yes, the underbuyer shops at Costco. Kind of confounding, no?  I remember hesitating about buying 72 bagel bites at one time. “I don’t buy them often…what if the kids don’t really like them…they’ll take up alot of freezer space…maybe for a long time”…but I did it.  They were gone in a week!  My kids loved having them, and they loved being able to say to their visiting friends, “hey, we have bagel bites, do you want them?!”  I liked having something other than the proceeds of the typical cupboard scrounge to offer.  I felt happy to be able to be generous.

I underbuy toiletries.  How many times am I squeezing out the last of the toothpaste desperately before bedtime.  Or scrounging the bathroom cabinets for the dentist provided trial size that I don’t really like but I saved for just this occasion?  Or how many times have my children come to me, “we’re out of conditioner, mom” and I show them how to eek out the last bit by adding water to it and hoping that the watered down goo will spread over their head?  How often do I end up skipping conditioner myself because I’m out and I’ve been out.  I think I learned this kind of super-economy from my mother.  She taught me the water-it-down trick. I use it often for dish soap and kitchen cleaners, too.

For the record, I’m a big believer in eeking out the last bit of a product from its container. It feels different to do that because you’re being thrifty as opposed to eeking out the last bit desperately because you don’t have any more of it.

Actually, two trips ago to Costco, I purchased a large shampoo & conditioner that I thought my kids and I could both like.  We did.  And then every time they showered, they trucked into my bathroom to “borrow” the shampoo & conditioner and every time I showered I trucked on in to their bathroom to “borrow it back”.  I did this for three weeks.  And then, while reading The Happiness Project, I thought, “Aha! I could buy another bottle each of Shampoo & Conditioner and then they could have their own set and I could have mine.  Amazing!  A simple purchase of $12 solved an annoying nightly/morning ritual for three people.

I do live in a retail-challenged area. There is no “Target” in the entire state of Vermont.  I refuse to shop at Wal-Mart.  I do shop  Costco and the grocery store, and then sometimes Bed Bath & Beyond and CVS, but these are in four different towns.  It’s a pain in the ass to hit them all in one day.  One would think that this would be motivation enough to buy an abundant supply when I do go.   There’s that masochism again.

I am also an Amazon Prime shopper — you know, I paid $79 for free shipping on almost everything I want to buy. I shop this site, and others, put things in my shopping cart, and then abandon it.  Because…well, lots of reasons, usually that I don’t want to buy something I don’t need.  Or buy something I might have to ship back at my own expense if it doesn’t work out.  I offer this up as further evidence that I don’t like shopping, even online.

I’m not a shopper. I am an underbuyer.  How nice it would be to have enough of things in the house.  Enough food for the ability to whip up cookies or scones for the school PTO event, the new neighbors who moved in, for the children and their friends after school, for those apres-ski/ride Sundays when everyone is too tired to think about dinner, let alone buy it.   How nice would it be to have plenty of shampoo and conditioner and razors and toothpaste. It’s not like we’re never going to need any of those things?!

So, as with most things, awareness is step one.  I need to work on decluttering the freezer — to make room for more food, and decluttering the linen closet to make room for more toiletries.  I have access to Costco and the cash flow to buy extras of things we use.  It’s not natural, but now I have a new reason to fight the underbuying tendancy:

the happiness of having enough of what we need, and to be generous and to feel like I have fulfilled my family’s needs!



Mother’s Mothers’ Mothers Day

Mother as Grandmother with my oldest

This is not the usual mother’s lament of enduring her husband and children’s attempts to show me their gratitude through being helpful for one whole hour during which I must eat a breakfast that resembles their favorites and a day full of “it’s mom’s choice”, although that all transpired.

No, I actually closed out “Mothers Day” thinking of my mother and wishing things were different now.  She is long deceased (almost 10 years now).  Yes, I am who I am because of her relentless, selfless parenting, her nurturing if not overinvolved attention, her adventurous spirit, and her fearlessness. Yes, she drove me crazy alive.  Yes, I miss her, anyway.

But this Mothers Day, I begrudged her leaving behind her role of “mother” to me. You see, upon her death, she made me and my oldest sister, Anne, “trustees” of our middle sister “Kathy’s” 1/3 portion of her investments. Kathy just turned 50 earlier this month. At her birth, she suffered a brief loss of oxygen and while she has grown up seemingly “normal” she has a just above functional IQ and the emotional maturity of a 14 year old.  Which means since she was about 14, she’s driven my parents mad with her feckless path through life, enduring accidental pregnancies and accidentally-on-purpose pregnancies, countless gumball-machine engagements, bounced checks, sky-high credit card debt, lost jobs, broken hearts, etc.  Let’s just say, “making good choices” has never been her long suit.

My mother never got a break. She was still teaching Kathy right from wrong, good choices from bad choices, budgeting, social dynamics and consequences, job training, perpetual relationship counseling up until her death. When she died, I lost a mother and a friend; Kathy lost a mother, a therapist, a teacher and a bank.

It was after she died that I learned that Anne and I were to assume her role as all of these things.  Only in our case, instead of being well down the path of life, we were just getting started. I had on child, almost 3 and had my 2nd child later in the same year she died.  Anne had twins five years later.  So in addition to raising our own children. My own children. We continue to raise Kathy.

My children are now 11 and 8 years old.  They are wonderful, healthy well-adjusted children. I am proud of who they are.  And I have Kathy.  Who I desperately want to be normal, and who I think desperately wants me to think her lifestyle is normal, and yet baffles every brain cell in my body.

She, of course, calls me on Mother’s Day eve, to tell me her live-in boyfriend has left the house in a rage and whatever is she going to do about it?  Oh Mother-oh-mother, I get to be “counselor” now! And so I calmly help her navigate through what has historically been a minor skirmish in the battle she calls love.  I know how this will end. Despite the fact that I only get the calls from her about how much she can’t live with this person any more, how she can’t tolerate this person any more, because he stormed off first she must have him back. I can’t decide if it’s the 14-year old in her or the 30 years of soap opera watching that dictates her behavioral response.

And on Mother’s Day, she calls Anne to ask for money because she didn’t get an unemployment check and she is overdrawn, and she has “no food”.  Anne calls me, on Mothers Day, so we can do Mother’s work still.  This is what we do as sisters to Kathy: we co-parent.  From 2500 miles away.

I fill in the gaps for Anne: Kathy told me yesterday in her sorrow and dismay of the relationship breakup scare, that the boyfriend wanted her to ask us for more money from her trust for them to live on.  That would be one red flag. Yes, we are constantly giving her money. That’s what we’re supposed to do as trustee, but since Mom’s instructions were essentially to “mother like me”, we have no legal ground to stand on to say no even to ridiculously manipulated situations demanding financial support.

Never mind that just last week, for Kathy’s birthday, she drove to a casino with same said boyfriend and played the slots.  Never mind that with birthday money hot in her hands, she just went shopping and purchased all new linens for her new bed (bed courtesy of the trust).   The request will be denied.  It will likely return morphed into something more tragic.

These events are by no means isolated.  It is constant and chronic. There is no let-up in the manipulations. The circumstances. The requests. The pleas. Being sought out as banker and counselor is a near everyday event.  Silence happens when she is flush. The calls come when she is short. In between is some social crisis.

And so, Mothers Day comes and goes with the frustrating reminder that I am Mother to more than my own children.  Of course, I love Kathy. Like a sister. That comes naturally. It is loving her like a Mother that is awkward and unfair. Mother meant well; it was her love and concern and care she undoubtedly wanted to continue after her death. She figured who better to carry on her mission of raising Kathy to be a productive citizen.  I’m sure she didn’t realize, until too late maybe, that she was saddling me (and Anne) with the pain and frustration of keeping Kathy safe and out of trouble. Her guilt over a difficult birth translated to a lifetime of trying everything under the sun from toughlove, to tutors and counseling and included the sacrifice of her happiness and her marriage.  While I inherited her edict and her means, I didn’t inherit the guilt and so I cannot be Kathy’s Mother.  It doesn’t come off the same.

Our relationship as sisters is perverted by my role as mother-trustee.  I can no longer think of her as a sister peer.  Perhaps that would have faded with age anyway but I’ll never know.  And my own parenting of my own children is affected. It is never naive, as I have my Mothering of Kathy as a constant reminder of what can go so wrong.

I now must work harder to keep the focus on my own children. There’s no legal contract that says I have to do that, but I do. The legal and fiduciary obligations I have are to mother my sister; a seemingly nebulous, endless task.

You have made it hard, Mother, to keep my own family a priority.  I know you never meant to do that. I forgive you.  I loved you deeply Mother. You were a great mother.  I hope I’ll be as good a mother.

To my own children.