Swine Flu Part Deux

I woke up yesterday morning to the sounds of Gordon Keith announcing on radio station KTCK that a child has died of swine flu in Texas.  “Oh, boy,” I thought.  “Now everything’s been taken up a notch.” Just when we were comforting ourselves and our children by letting them know that, in spite of the fact that swine flu hit our elementary school, there hadn’t been any deaths in the U.S.–  one occurs. And in our own state!  A singing David Byrne and the Talking Heads began to fill my own head: “This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no fooling around”…I decided I’d better cancel going to my exercise class today, as the older women in there probably wouldn’t have appreciated my swine-flu-tainted presence.  Some of them have been through chemo and I know their immune systems are down (no, I’m not looking for excuses not to exercise– I love that class, it’s stretching and muscle toning for an hour and a half!!)  

As storm clouds rolled in for what is supposed to be (according to the news) three days of rain, my teenager woke up and announced that she was going back to bed and going to school late.  We’d let her babysit the night before– not usually done on a schoolnight but the mom had told her they’d be back by 11 and I figured, my daughter stays up that late anyway so why not?– but they didn’t get back until 12… so, I could sympathize with her, but refused to write an  “Epstein’s mother’s doctor” excuse (you had to have watched “Welcome Back Kotter”  to get that joke).  I’m tired, too,  I told her, but that doesn’t mean I get to postpone or cancel my responsibilities.  “If you stay home, you’ll be taking a tardy or an unexcused absence,” I said. She slept and slept in spite of my repeated reminders of the time, and was very late getting to school… I’m sure another reason she wanted to stay home was because her sister got to, but also, because it is TAKS week (TAKS is a series of  insidious, fairly easy proficiency tests taken by all public school children in Texas in varying years), those students not taking TAKS on certain days literally get to “goof off” (yet another reason why I hate TAKS) so she didn’t see the point of going.  And when I picked her up after school let out, it did seem a little ridiculous for her to have attended– the school district has a heightened concern about our students and swine flu, yet they’re encouraging them to come together just to have “free reading time” in Language Arts and watch “National Treasure II” in Social Studies class? Go figure. 

I spent the day much like I did Tuesday, working at the computer, yet Tuesday was much crazier. My 10-year-old, Emmie, had been on the TV news the night before and lots of people were e-mailing and calling.  In addition, Emmie’s extra-curricular activities were canceling right and left- first a piano lesson (the teacher was flying on a plane the next day and didn’t want to get exposed to any more germs than necessary), then a Girl Scout troop visit to a retirement home, then, after getting an email from the county health department that they didn’t want any kids from my child’s school to gather with other children, I decided to pull her out of gymnastics class this week. And then, I got word that my Scout troop would have to cancel their two-night campout in East Texas scheduled for this weekend, since almost half the girls in the troop attend the “tainted” elementary school.  I really thought that horseback riding, swimming, and cooking outdoors would be welcome relief for a bunch of girls who had been cooped up all week, but I understand the camp’s health/safety concerns. As the troop leader, I had to break the news to everyone else in the troop.

Emmie has been doing some pretty constructive things with her “quarantine time”– printing off logic puzzles from the Internet and immersing herself in them for hours, working on Scout badge activities, reading, making a fort, playing Webkinz…at lunch Tuesday we had a pretty interesting conversation, one I would have missed if I hadn’t heeded her request to sit down at the kitchen table while eating lunch, instead of at my computer… she was asking why kids have to be so careful while on the Internet, she didn’t understand why adults would go to so much trouble to hurt kids– which got us into a discussion on child predators (and I mean a much more in-depth conversation than previously, now that she knows about the Birds and the Bees…).  Priceless!! (But at the same time, sad that the topic even exists…)

By yesterday evening, Texas’ governor had declared the state a disaster zone (much like his hair) and my husband brought home a stack of N95 masks from Home Depot  (actually, to protect him while blowing insulation in the attic this weekend, but how ironic is that!).  As President Obama tried to calm everyone’s fears and the entire Fort Worth school system shut down, I pushed a cart full of groceries to my car in the dark and pouring rain, wondering if it had washed away all that costly sanitizer I saw being sprayed all over our school.  The news photographs showed one worker aiming it all the way up the flagpole.  (Who do they think attends Canyon Creek Elementary– Curious George?)

The Swine Flu Is At My Child’s School

Just wanted to let my blog readers know that chaos is breaking out in my neighborhood– my 10-year-old’s elementary school here in Richardson, TX is closed for the rest of the week as there is a confirmed case of swine flu there and possibly two more.  They are discouraging going out of the house and interacting with others so we will be house-bound for the week– I will keep you all posted via this blog. We may not get swine flu but we just may get cabin fever!

Lend Me Your (Double-Pierced?) Ear

With parenting, the wrestling never stops.  Wrestling with what to allow and when.  When your children are younger, you ponder and discuss with other moms such gut-wrenching questions like, “Is it time for potty training?” and “At what age should they be allowed to go to a slumber party?” Last week, I got to wrestle with the questions, “Should I let my 14-year-old get her upper ear lobe pierced?” and “Should I let my 10-year-old read Twilight?” 

They were begging me.  I said yes to both, after much thought and investigation.  For the ear question, I said yes thinking it would probably happen sometime in the future, when she’d saved enough money and gotten up the courage (this is a kid who greatly hates getting shots, by the way), so I figured by the time it could happen, she’d lose interest. But, never underestimate a strong-willed child.  Lucky for her, she found an old bank under the mess of STUFF she calls her room and had enough money to get it done. And fear went out the window in favor of fashion. So not only was she ready, she wanted to go get it done NOW.  “And you have to be there,” she told me, “because it requires parental consent.”  Not being one to drop everything and change plans at the whims of a teenager, I used one of my favorite phrases of all time,  “Go ask your father.” I figured that tactic would buy at least a couple weeks.  But, never underestimate a “fun” Dad (I forgot he once pierced his own ear in the punk 80’s, with ice and a needle…) He not only took her, he drove several miles back home from the mall to get a copy of her birth certificate and drive back (he says they required it to prove he was her Dad, not a boyfriend– HAH! HAH!)  So now she has a tiny new hole on the top edge of her left ear (which she says I need to refer to as “cartilege”–but that sounds too much like being at a meat counter, or in an operating room, for me…).

We are the only parents in her circle of friends who are currently allowing it.  I honestly don’t see what the big deal is– it’s one ear, one tiny hole, and all she wants to put into it is a tiny faux diamond. Not a hoop.  Not a claw.  Not a skull and crossbones with the words “Anarchy Rules”, for goodness sakes.  And, she paid for it.  But you’d think I let her pierce her belly button or tongue (both, by the way, which I would not allow).  It’s like when I let her dye her hair.  We’re not talking pink here. It was a just a darker shade of her already natural red. And it turned out beautifully. (And again– she paid for it with her own money!) But jaws dropped and phone lines heated up…

I just think parents need to pick their battles carefully, and these were two battles that didn’t need to be fought. Do parents think if you give an inch it will open the floodgates to tattoos, mohawks, sex, drinking and drugs? I think it’s quite the opposite.  I will never forget someone I knew who was forbidden to watch the insipid TV show “Love,  American Style” while growing up in the 70’s and restricted in many other ways.  She ended up pregnant before her senior year in high school, almost losing her life in childbirth.  And remember all those wild PK’s (preacher’s kids)?!  Parents need to look around and realize that the kids who are restricted the most usually rebel and try to express themselves in ways their parents would have never imagined possible.  In ways the kids themselves sometimes don’t even like– they’re just doing it as a reaction to their parents. (Or, they keep it all inside and eventually turn out psycho.) Giving teens some freedom is honoring their brains, their individuality, their decision-making. The unspoken message is, “I trust you enough to do so and so,” or “I know you’re smart enough to handle this,” or “Your fashion sense is different than mine but that’s okay” rather than “You’re stupid, untrustworthy, and don’t have a clue what to do so I’m going to control everything.”  What a gift to give your child!  Soon, my daughter will be driving a car, and In four short years will be graduating and leaving home (hopefully!), out of my sight far more than she’s ever been before.  The “ties” need to be given more and more slack each year until then, the freedoms need to be granted whenever safely and sanely possible, so that she’ll be ready, self-confident, capable.  Sure, the “what ifs” can be painful and worrisome with each new freedom granted, but I think it’s a necessary side effect of that kind of true love– non-possessive.  Was it hard to let a 13-year-old fly off to Costa Rica with her church youth group last summer to do volunteer work? Absolutely. But at the same time, I knew that the odds were in her favor to come back in one piece, a better person for having taken the trip. I was right.

At the same time, I’m not a nonstop Yes-Mom.  Remember, I’m uncool.  If a privilege is granted and then misused, there are consequences, and the privilege might not get granted again.  And if you read this blog, you’ll see plenty of things to which I say no.  But teens actually want that, as well.  The Dallas Morning News sometimes convenes a group of teens from across the North Texas area to talk about what’s on their minds and then a story is printed about what when on– every time, a lot of the teens speak about (no joke) wishing their parents would set limits for them, follow through with consequences when they do set limits, and give them jobs to do around the house (c’mon over to my house, kids!! )

So I think good parenting is a balance between giving freedoms and setting limits. Wonder what will try to tip the scales next week…

The Secret Life of Real American Teens

Since I like to read (when I can find the time!) and so do a lot of other people I know, I thought I’d post mentions of good books on this blog once in awhile, especially those that pertain to the subjects discussed here: parenting, kids, teens, life… It’s always a gift to receive a good book recommendation, especially for one you might not find staring at you in your local bookstore, so here’s a gift for you today:

My friend Bob Nelson, who teaches at a nearby high school and has been teaching high school psychology for many, many years, wrote and published a great book a couple years ago that I’ve been thinking about lately, as my older daughter starts preparing for high school in the fall (the same one where Bob teaches). 

It’s called 
Homeroom: A Shelter From the Storm and it’s still available at iUniverse.com

Book Cover

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I read it– I first read it because, well, just because I know Bob and thought it would be neat for my book club to read a book and then have the author come speak to us (which he did). The surprise I received when I read it, and what any reader will receive, is a unique peek into the minds and worlds of real teenagers.  (And normally it’s hard to look into that world too closely at all, so I thank Bob for this candid glimpse!)

And what a glimpse it is. Though Homeroom is fiction, many of the characters are based on real kids that Bob has taught and it involves true events from Bob’s classroom, which at one time was very much like the “Homeroom” in the book for one period a day– a class where kids just hung out and talked. Set their own format, their own agenda.  Met kids from all walks of life. Reinforced teen stereotypes but more often than not, shattered those stereotypes by finally getting to know the people behind the labels (but not in a simplified way like The Breakfast Club– after all, we never got to see what happened to Molly Ringwald and pals after detention).  It is very touching and heartwarming to think that real teens reached out to each other in the ways that Bob describes– I read part of it on a subway in Washington, D.C. while chaperoning Girl Scouts on a summer trip, and wondered if they saw me crying over it!  Bob does a good job of transporting the reader outside the classroom and into the teens’ lives– a “magical” date involving an unlikely couple is an especially beautiful scene, worthy of a movie.  While the book has a recurring italic flashback to a kid who’s thinking about shooting up the school a la Columbine, don’t let these disturbing images keep you from the heart of the story– real kids experiencing real high school life, with all its trials and tribulations.  I think even well-read, “in the know” adults will be surprised at just how pressure-filled that life is, and how simple gestures of friendship can sometimes make a life-or-death difference. It was great to be able to go to Bob and ask, “Was so and so real? Did such and such really happen?” and find out that more times than not, it really did happen.  When asked what high school life has been like for kids in the years since he wrote the book, Bob said, “I think it’s harder for kids now, the pressures they face are even greater.”

I think I’m going to beg him for a sequel.

Our Easter Bunny was a Dust Bunny

Just within the last six months, my 10-year-old finally, officially learned that a giant bunny really doesn’t break into our house every Easter to hide baskets of goodies (seriously, I think if I hadn’t said anything, she’d have held tightly to that belief well into her 20’s), so Easter was a lot more low-key this year. But we still were visited by a bunny, just of a different kind– or I should say, this Easter I re-acquainted myself with the dust bunnies that have taken up permanent residency in my kids’ rooms. 

I don’t think the “spring cleaning” urge has hit my kids yet.  I stood at each of their doorways, shaking my head in disbelief.  What is it about kids and not keeping their rooms picked up? I don’t get it. Especially with the teenager, who realizes how much she likes her room when she can see the furniture, likes how much easier it is to get ready for school when she doesn’t have to hear a “crunch” while walking across the bedroom floor, from stepping on sunglasses, CDs, empty makeup bottles and such, that are buried under piles of clothes.  She appreciates her clean room when she’s worked hard to clean it up– so why does it take less than 24 hours for it to be unrecognizable once again?  If anyone has read anything about this and has answers, please share.  Is it part of most kids’  DNA, like hating vegetables and procrastinating about homework? Or something that shows extreme creativity in certain people (yeah, maybe that’s it– their rooms are like big canvases…)  Or maybe it’s kids’ subconscious way of exerting control in a world where they feel they don’t have much control over anything (ah, nothing like a little psychoanalysis to figure things out…)

I know my kids are not alone in their brazen slobbishness.  I’ve heard it many times from other people about their own kids.  And sometimes I’ve seen other kids’ rooms up close.  I’ll never forget an interview I did for a newspaper story I was writing about a local “Barbie artist”– it was for a special section on the 40th anniversary of the Barbie doll, and this artist made collages out of Barbie-related objects.  Anyway, she was taking me on a tour of her house, showing me the Barbie art hanging in the hallway, when we walked by what appeared to be a bedroom.  The door was open and it was a disaster zone inside.  “Sorry,” she apologized, closing the door.  “I have a teenaged daughter.” To which I “knowingly” offered a piece of advice– me, who only had one 4-year-old child at the time (and the artist knew that from our initial chit chat)– “We have a rule at our house,” I said.  “Our daughter can’t have friends over or go play anywhere if her room’s not picked up.”  Thankfully the woman just smiled politely and said something like “That’s good,” instead of throwing me out.  (I realized pretty quickly what a doofus I’d been and just knew my “know-it-all” comment would come back to haunt me someday!)

Yes, we do still have that rule and if we didn’t, I think my teen’s room might never get picked up. True, if you read the entry posted previously about our
allowance system, you’d see there are also allowance dollars tied to keeping their rooms picked up, and allowance is lost daily if they don’t.  But, I wrote that the allowance system has worked to shape only some behaviors with the teenager– one of those behaviors is not, unfortunately, room cleaning.  I kid you not– in the 16 months since we’ve had that allowance system in place, I can count on two hands the number of weeks she’s made a daily effort to earn allowance by keeping her room picked up.  And as a result, she has far less money to spend on clothes.  She loves clothes and shopping more than just about anything else in the world, so I’ve never fully understood why she gives up the opportunity to have more, by not doing something as simple as pull up a comforter and throw clothes in the hamper each day before things get out of control.  Is that so hard? She says it is.  So, at least things get picked up on the days when friends are coming over.  

Even I must have been the same way when I was growing up.  I don’t remember how bad the mess ever got, but I do remember my Dad poking his head into my room once in awhile, a grin on his face like a cat that ate a bird, saying, “Hey, did anyone get hurt?”
“Huh?” I’d reply, falling unawares right into his joke. “What are you talking about?”
“You know, when the tornado hit in here,” he’d say. “Did anyone get hurt?”
I probably threw a dirty sock at him and chased him away.

Circle of Caregiving

The thought just hit me, as I was driving in my car this morning, that yesterday was the six-year anniversary of my father’s passing, at age 81.  In remembrance of that, I wanted to share a column I wrote that was published in the Dallas Morning News in the same year, 2003.  I think it speaks volumes to a lot of people but unfortunately it got buried on an inside, all black and white page among many ads, so I’m not sure a lot of people noticed.  I hope a lot of people will notice now.


Caregivers’ Cares Span Generations
by Patricia Long Allbee

Never in my wildest imagination, when I was deciding to become a full-time Mom, did I think that someday my own mother would have someone in diapers shortly after I did. Granted, while her brand of choice is Depends and the person she’s taking care of is over seven decades older than my children, the similarities of our situations have been amazing.  At first I just noticed a few— I brush my 4-year-old’s teeth at night, she brushes Dad’s; I use a baby monitor to sometimes keep an ear on my children; she asked to borrow it so she could hear Dad better; she worried for weeks about what it would be like to take Dad on an airplane, ditto for me for my first plane trip with children. But when she phoned me one day in exasperation, saying, “I can never get anything done.  I never have any time for myself.  He’s calling to me, wanting something all the time!” it was a strong déjà vu experience, and I realized that the “circle of life” is much more than a song from a Disney musical. I have also realized that for the first time, I can be a shoulder for Mom to lean on, returning the favor of a lifetime of Mom always being the solid rock.

She is grateful for my empathy and words of encouragement.  I knew exactly what she meant when she e-mailed and said some days she can’t even take a shower for fear of him hurting himself.  I nodded knowingly when she told me that he was always bored if she took him along to the grocery store or hair salon but leaving him home would mean having to hire a sitter, and that could get expensive.  I shared her frustration at the story of her spending a physically demanding day of caregiving only to get yelled at by Dad at day’s end.  And boy could I relate about not getting any sleep due
to someone constantly needing something in the night —I remember being a walking zombie when my children were infants, and sometimes it’s still hard to get a complete night’s sleep.

“Finally, someone understands,” she says.

I am careful, however, not to be flippant and act like our situations are exactly the same, because I’m well aware that they’re not.  In spite of dealing with public tantrums, numerous lost shoes, and permanent marker stains on the wallpaper, there is a lot of joy that goes with my caregiving.  I’m nurturing and growing young people, looking forward to them reaching their fullest potential, with a husband to help me.  She’s watching someone slowly fade away—someone she’s loved and to which she’s devoted most of her life, and she’s doing it alone, 13 hours away from me and many more hours away from my siblings.

For extra support, I encouraged her to hire someone two or three days a week to sit with Dad and take care of tasks such as bathing and dressing.  “I have Mother’s Day Out,” I told her.  “You need one, too!” 

I also encouraged her to get together with friends who had gone through a similar experience.  I told her I’d found lots of my own support in neighbors, in my babysitting co-op and in a group called Mothers of Preschoolers. But even though she has numerous friends, she has never been one to share a lot of personal details, and didn’t want to be a “bother” to them.

So I continue to be Mom’s sounding board, trying to relate when I can, which is still surprisingly more often than not.

“I just can hardly take the stress anymore,” Mom said through tears one day.  “And I feel so bad because I told him so!” Ah, guilt… how often have I cried over how I sometimes react to my kids in a not-so-patient way and say things I wish I hadn’t.

A few months ago at a family wedding reception, she and I found ourselves in the same buffet line.  Mom lamented that she was ‘starving’ but that she couldn’t eat yet since she always has to fix a plate for Dad first.  Then she looked down at my plate, and, pointing to the kid-sized portions on it, laughed.

“You, too, huh?” she asked.
“Me, too,” I replied.