New Parent Orientation

This week I attended a two-day-long orientation for expectant parents who were having their first child not enter the world, but enter college. As I jotted down my notes it struck me that this format of parent orientation would have been really useful in 1992 when I took my daughter home from the hospital.

The thick stack of parent handouts included a monthly calendar with important school dates such as mid-terms and finals. As I flipped through the pages I noticed handy tips along the sidebars about what freshmen might be experiencing psychologically as the weeks of the semester went by.  It seemed like the college version of the pregnancy classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a book that most certainly was read by every mom in the auditorium room two decades previously.

Just as I was not the first mom to revel in the wonderment of a new baby, I know I am not the first mother to wrestle with the launching of a first born.  In fact, Amir Baghdadchi, the wise University of Michigan housing director, began his session with the following request: “Those of you in the room who consider yourselves part of the group of parents who are super-stressed about freshman year, please raise your hands.”  He assessed the audience from side to side and then uttered, “The rest of you are the dads…”

Baghdadchi then went on to say that moms and dads needed to transition from parents with rules and advanced surveillance techniques to positive coaches who make pithy observations only when asked. “Declare victory while you can,” he urged. “You won the college game – you are here at orientation, and they are leaving home in a month. Have faith in the values you have imparted. I am confident that you have done your job well.”

It sure did not feel like I won anything when the prize was a complete alteration of my family dynamic of the past 18 years.

I was ready for my daughter to go, and yet I was not. Mostly though, I suspected no orientation could fully prepare me for the “day” of saying goodbye and the bittersweet feelings it would bring.

Towards the end of the program, after countless presentations on everything from housing, to campus safety to academics, Baghdadchi made his most emphatic plea: “The most important support parents can provide is to make sure that your children make connections. “

He counseled that strong friendships were critical to our student’s happiness and success more than any other factor. “More important than academic preparations, more important than organization skills, trust me,” he said. “I have witnessed this in over 50,000 freshmen during my tenure and I know it to be true.”

In our Jan. 17 blog, “Good Friends Keep Us Healthy,” Linda discussed the mental and physical  benefits of friendships.  Whether it is the release of the calming hormone, Oxytocin, or simply the increase in our longevity, the evidence continues to build that live, human interaction is critical to our well-being. Further, Dr. John Medina, New York Times best-selling author of Brain Rules states that “the brain craves community.”

So, when I do tearfully hug and kiss my daughter goodbye as she enters into her collegiate adventure, I will not only tell her to study hard, not procrastinate and get plenty of sleep. I will also tell her to make sure she prioritizes making new friends and spending time with them as her success and happiness depend on it.

Carol Lewis Gullstad, 25 July 2011

A Friend in Need?

Soul SistersMany of us can recall the heartbreaking realization that a friend “used” us.

Young girls are capable of very advanced manipulation tactics. Perhaps a grade-school friend came to your house only to play with your “As Seen on TV” toys, or a middle-school girl visited to watch movies her own parents banned. In high school, friends might have feigned closeness just to borrow your cute clothes or to catch a glimpse of your college-age brother.

In elementary school, kids came to my house to meet our family’s pet monkey. Later, it was to “spy” on my older brothers and their friends, or to eat the bountiful, unhealthy snacks my mother stocked. (A wonderful life-long friend recently admitted she stopped by my house after school just for Pop-Tarts.) The fact that I – my parents’ sixth child – didn’t have a curfew made my home a draw for those who were “over-served” and wanted to avoid their own parents.

Adult women “use” their friends, as well.

I recently rekindled a friendship with someone who was going through a painful divorce.  Over the course of a few years, we met every now and then for long walks, during which I listened with interest and sympathy to her personal and legal struggles. The last time we strolled around, some six months ago, she spoke elatedly about her new relationship with a seemingly terrific man. I haven’t heard from her since. Apparently I was just her “rainy day friend,” and that’s okay.

A younger friend calls only when she needs parenting advice. I’m no expert, but with four kids older than hers, I can pass on wisdom gained from a host of experiences. Several acquaintances have contacted me to edit their kids’ college essays or theses.

Most women in long-term relationships discover, at some point, that their spouse or partner isn’t an absolutely perfect companion. For instance, my husband dislikes watching films with subtitles, falls asleep during classical-music concerts, feels ill after Mexican food and definitely detests “chick flicks.” He’d rather read World War II history than Stieg Larssen novels, finds shopping agitating and lacks the knack for foreign languages.

Fortunately, we can appreciate a variety of friends who fill our disparate needs. With limited time for personal entertainment, we give ourselves permission to pigeon-hole our pals, and enjoy their occasional company for specific activities or events without our husbands or kids. When an old friend calls out of the blue with an extra ticket to the ballet, we’re thrilled, and don’t resent the months during which we hadn’t heard from her.

One of my friends is a “culture companion.”  Our social circle suffered a rift a few years ago, but she and I continue to get together to attend literary lectures or museum exhibitions. While we don’t meet often, we always value our time together.

Some of my friends are strictly “bleacher buddies”; we only spend time together during our sons’ sporting events. We feel close while cheering and analyzing strategy, and then, after the season ends, we go months without speaking. I have “pooch pals” who I never see unless we’re walking our dogs.

Several “amiche” (plus one male) and I gather outside of Italian class only to watch foreign films or celebrate occasions as the Romans do. I’m friendly with some very fun “goodtime gals” (see photo) who convene several times a year for GNOs and birthday celebrations; although I adore these ladies, we rarely call each other between outings. Several of my fellow book club members and I don’t converse apart from our literary discussions.

I know several women who have grown close to those who diet, exercise, shoe shop or stop smoking with them, and most of us know an AA member who found friendship in a sponsor or support-group peer.

As I age, I treasure my friends more than ever. Most of all, I appreciate their unique gifts, and the knowledge that no matter what I’m going through personally, or however I want to spend my “spare” time, I can think of someone to call. Many women live their lives with husbands or partners who can’t be all things at all times. Fortunately, we have no legal limit to the number of friends we can keep.

–Linda Williams Rorem, 18 July 2011

Vacation from Email

Digital Vacation

Half the fun of going on vacation is the anticipation. I get months of mental mileage from the pre-trip planning of the activities that I will enjoy while gone. I eagerly catalog the books that will be devoured, the experiences to be engaged and the list of daily tasks that will not be attended to while away.

However, in the last few years there seems to be a carry-over from daily life that does follow me when I leave – emails and texts.  I am always surprised when I get a work call while on vacation. I shouldn’t be. I always carry my smart phone and if it is a short trip I don’t even bother to leave a pre-recorded message or auto-reply to alert people that I am “out of the office.”

The vacation interruptions are a problem of my own creation. Lately I have wondered why – no matter where I travel — my packing list includes a cell phone and email access. I pondered why it is a priority to ensure a link up no matter where I am in the world.

Yes, I have four children and a business, but I am not Secretary of State. No one in my family has an imminent life-threatening illness. And, I leave emergency numbers for those who really need to know.

I did not have a good answer for why there needed to be perpetual two-way access other than it was my routine.  A recent study found that the number of people checking emails while on vacation is 68 percent, up 10 points from the previous year. How could I truly take a break if my office came with me. It defeated the point of escaping the daily grind.  I decided a self-intervention was needed. It was “digital detox” time.

I prepared to unplug for one week and discovered that I was not the only one who had anxiety over my electronic LOA (Leave of Absence).  My email vacation can be broken down into three parts:

1.       Pre-vacation

The notice of my upcoming communication firewall elicited a flurry of emails that generally started, “I know you are leaving this weekend, but, before you go could you…”

2.       Vacation

 A few days later, doubting emails were sent during my blackout period. The inbox previews read, “I know you said you would not be checking emails while you are gone but in case you take a peek…”

3.       Post- vacation

Upon my return I had hundreds of emails to read with some beginning, ”I hope you had a great vacation and I can’t wait to hear about it at some point, but right now I need…”

So much for savoring the lingering vacation buzz. How nice to be “needed.”

I am happy to report that I never “took a peek.” I successfully unplugged for one week.  I kept my phone off and resisted the temptation to check email even when I came across an internet café during a one hour stop. Once I let go, I felt free and no compelling need to post a status update on Facebook.

I am refreshed in a way I haven’t been in years and I vow to go AWOL again.

Carol Lewis Gullstad July 11, 2011

Committing Our Kids

When some girlfriends and I started a book club last year, we named it “Meanest Mommies on Mercer Island” (MMOMI for short) because that’s what our kids call us when we deny their whims. Last weekend, I definitely lived up to the name.

My third son has always loved vehicles; his first word was “truck,” and instead of seeing how fast his toys rolled (as did our second son) or what would happen when they careened into stacks of blocks (a la #1 Son), he would lie his head on the ground to inspect how and why the wheels turned.

When the big brothers were outside kicking and throwing balls, #3 was engineering intricate KNex machines, retro-fitting his remote-control vehicles and plotting a second floor for the playhouse (which would require a rope-and-pulley elevator). He has spent much of the past four years buying, “tricking out” and reselling gas scooters and computers. Aside from lacrosse, which employs a shaft and a netted “head,” ball sports don’t really excite him.

Nevertheless, our third son will soon enter high school, and I have encouraged him to join a fall sports team to keep him off the computer and in shape for spring lacrosse. He decided to try football again, after a two-year break, and his older brothers cheered.

Those planning to play football in the fall were “strongly encouraged” to attend team camp at a nearby college last week. #3 wavered, so I gave him a deadline for his decision. On D-Day, he signed the papers and I submitted forms and a check. And then, the day before the bus was to depart, #3 had a change of heart. He spent the better part of a sunny summer day sending me text messages, trying every possible argument to beg off of camp.

I know he isn’t crazy about football.  I know he won’t end up in the NFL. And I know that he’s happier spending summer days boating, scootering and fiddling with electronics. In my heart, I knew I should let him skip the camp. But I felt he had made a commitment to attend, and that he needed to see it through.

I remembered how I had let #3 drop swimming and football years earlier, and even miss a trip with his grandparents so he could attend a faith-based “dirt bike” camp. I recalled the conversations #1 Son and I had when his baseball and lacrosse events conflicted. I thought about the friend I gave up because she often dropped our plans when a “better” option came along.

While it would have been easier to back down, I gave myself permission to be a “mean mommy” and make an unpopular decision in order to impart and important lesson. I held my ground (as did my husband).

 That evening, the tears and shouting began. I am not proud to say that #3 broke me down, and I truly became THE MEANEST MOMMY.

I told my son that I didn’t care if he played football in the fall, and that I didn’t even care if he enjoyed the camp. “You were given the choice, and you decided to go,” I reminded him. “Now, the team, the camp organizers and your rommate are counting on you.  You need to keep your commitment.” After hours of battle, when we were both too tired to continue, #3 relented. “Okay, I’ll go, but I won’t have fun,” he promised.

I spent half the night thinking about how guilty I would feel if he got injured at camp. (Ironically, #2 Son, who hopped on the camp bus with a lot more gusto, came home on crutches.)

The following morning, as parents watched their boys board the bus, I alerted a few coaches to my son’s reluctance. One assured me, “Very few kids like football at this age. It’s a ton of work.”  Another thanked me for sending my son, saying, “I wish more parents around here understood the value of commitment.”

I joined my husband in conversation with another mom, who told us, “My son is furious with me.  We spent all yesterday arguing about camp. I am forcing him to go, and to play for at least one season.”

Somehow, knowing I wasn’t the only MMOMI made me feel a lot better.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 5 July 2011

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