Halloween Slacker Mom

Two weeks ago, an email circulated around soliciting volunteers for the class Halloween party at my son’s elementary school. Parents were requested to lead fifth grade-friendly activities such as the mummy wrap game, a donuts-on-a-string eating contest and a cake/pie/treat walk.

I could have volunteered for game management or baking, but instead opted for easy street: I would send in two gallons of cider. Cleary I wasn’t in the spirit of things. Perhaps I should have felt more sentimental, as this was my youngest child’s final year in elementary school.  While I recognized it was my last opportunity to participate in a classroom Halloween party, I decided that now was the time to be “slacker mom” instead of super mom.

While I love paging through women’s lifestyle magazines this time of year for cute cupcake recipes and “frightful delights,” no one would ever confuse me with Martha Stewart or Rachel Ray. One-stop shopping and no-prep is my style. Why learn how to transform black licorice and gum drops into edible spiders or corn syrup and egg whites into ghostly marshmallows when there is Costco?

My lack of holiday enthusiasm was showing at home, too. Although I still had 5 days before the troops of Trick-or-Treaters would arrive at my door, I wasn’t very motivated. In past years I had created a votive-lighted path to the front porch, staked tombstones and skeletons in the grass and covered the front door in cobwebs. This year I had only one small potted fall-themed plant. It was beginning to look like a Charlie Brown Halloween. My kids noticed the absence of holiday trim and kept inquiring as to when I would be putting up decorations. I cheerfully replied that I was waiting for some “helpers” which elicited the honest response, “We just want you to do it.”

Pumpkin Drilling 101

Each year, for some unsubstantiated reason, I imagine our family bathed in the soft glow of embers in the fireplace as we gather to carve pumpkins, drink fresh-pressed apple cider and enjoy the aroma of roasting pumpkin seeds. This fantasy is then followed by us singing Monster Mash as we decorate with zeal and creativity. The reality, however, resembles a frazzled solo scramble to the finish line so kids in our neighborhood realize we are dispensing candy at nightfall.

This weekend I rallied a few days ahead of schedule as I began to feel guilty that the house looked so drab compared to the artfully arranged trim of my neighbor’s homes. I dragged the orange storage bins from the closet and positioned accents of witches, skeletons and scarecrows in our entry way. Mr. and Mrs. Pumpkin Head now grace an end table. There was one glaring omission from my display, however: no carved pumpkins. I was hoping to skip the tradition as the thought of all the mess was a deterrent and did not fit my notion of a simple setup and take down, but the family was pining for pumpkins.

Halloween was closing in fast when I shared my dilemma with a friend during a weekend walk. Melissa said her family had the same no-help-but-instant-gratification expectation for holiday decorating.  “Last year,” she said, “the night before Halloween, I felt guilty and went to the store and bought some pumpkins. I thought for sure that when I returned someone would help, but no one did. So, I marched into the garage and grabbed my husband’s drill and put a few holes in the pumpkin so the light could show through and I was done!” Her kids were a little stunned by the untraditional art work but knew better than to complain.

I knew at that moment that 2011 would be the “year of the drill-bit pumpkin” in my house.

While I do miss the sweet days of lingering in pumpkin patches and corn mazes with my kids, a new tradition was created last night. I followed my friend’s lead and located the tool that allowed me to carve in a snap. I joined my friend with gusto, not guilt, and became a “Rosie the Riveter” carver, defiantly drilling my way through Halloween.

Carol Lewis Gullstad October 31, 2011


Helping Hands (and Feet)

Last week, when we learned that a friend had severed his Achilles tendon and would be undergoing surgery, my husband’s immediate response was, “Wow, I’ll need to take him a bottle of Scotch.”

This reaction typifies the way many men “lend a helping hand”; Rich and his buddies gift bottles of booze when a friend undergoes anything from rotator cuff surgery to a vasectomy. They “help” the recently “downsized” and divorced in a similar fashion.

In contrast, after our friend Kimberly’s brain surgery last month, a battalion of some 40 women signed up for duty: delivering lattes, walking dogs, helping with shopping, chauffeuring kids, running errands, cooking meals and, as her recovery progressed, taking her out for brief lunches.

Kimberly’s rapid-response team was not unlike groups of ladies nationwide who organize to help friends who have lost loved ones, endured surgery, undergone chemotherapy or suffered a break up. In fact, an entire industry has formed to help women help others, with special calendars, how-to books and internet-based companies such as Lotsa Helping Hands, Caring Bridge and Share the Care.

So, is the assumption that when a woman is ailing, it takes a well-organized village to fill her shoes, but when a man is bed-ridden, all it takes is a good friend or two to keep his flask filled?

I’d hate to think our society has progressed so little. Do we really adhere to the June-and-Ward-Cleaver stereotype that offers up a husband needing slippers and a stiff drink after work, and a wife who handles every detail of home and family life, all while beautifully dressed and coiffed? (In truth, my husband pitches in quite a bit on the weekends, folding laundry, flipping pancakes and cleaning up after meals. And, in my workout clothes and straggly hair, I’m truly the antithesis of Beaver’s mom.)

Instead, I think that the differing male-female reactions are more indicative of how we relate to and nurture our friends.

Women need to be needed, and when a friend is down and out, we search for ways to show our concern. I know for a fact that Kimberly absolutely appreciated the many friends who lent helping hands (and feet) over the past month.  At the same time, I know that not one of those women helped out because she felt obligated to do so. They all felt compelled to reach out. Women seem to be programmed to nurture and support those who are suffering – either physically or mentally.

Often, we help with “hot dishes.” When I flew home from graduate school for my father’s memorial service decades ago, I was shocked to find our family kitchen stuffed with donated food. At the ripe old age of 22, I wondered if people really thought that casseroles and chocolate chip cookies could ease the pain of what was then the most terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing imaginable.

Until that time, I had never known true tragedy, so I didn’t understand the value of friends during crises. However, as life has continued on its bumpy path, I have had plenty of opportunity to experience the kindness of strangers and good friends, and to return the favor many times over.

A few years back, I was driving my kids to school when my SUV was T-boned on a neighborhood street. The car rolled three times – onto the passenger side, then the roof and finally the driver’s side — until it lodged against a split-rail fence. Although my kids and I were quite shaken and the car was “totaled,” we miraculously escaped (through the sun roof) without a single scratch, bruise or sore muscle.

Word spread quickly about the dramatic accident. Strangers combed the lawn where we had landed in search of my wedding ring, which was lost during the ordeal. Friends called to offer support. And one sweet acquaintance, accompanied by her husband and two teenage sons, showed up at my door with a homemade fruit tart.

Now, we all know that a sweet dessert can’t repair a car, cure post-traumatic stress or locate lost diamonds, but it certainly made me feel better, made Barb feel that she was helping in some way and showed me how much she cared.

Of course, the manly “booze cure” isn’t really about the alcohol, either. It’s simply another way to demonstrate concern. On Friday, when asked which brand of Scotch our buddy prefers, his wife texted, “It would be wasted on him… He loves a Duval.” So, that’s what my husband delivered, and both men felt good about the transaction…and their friendship. 

–          Linda Williams Rorem, 24 Oct. 2011

Take Ten

Girl Reading a Wikpedia-Book from PediaPress

Image via Wikipedia

When my daughter was in fifth grade she interviewed me for a parent survey and asked,

“Mommy, what are your favorite hobbies?”

I answered that I liked to hike, read and exercise. She looked at me very quizzically, pondered my reply for a moment and then said, “You don’t like to read. I never see you reading a book.”

I was a little stunned by her answer. I had read all the parenting manuals and they said read to your child everyday to demonstrate a love for reading. I had done this religiously but apparently, I also needed to read to myself in front of the children to really drive the point home.

I hadn’t seen that curve ball coming. I weakly responded, “I know you don’t see me reading books but that’s because I don’t have time when you and your brothers are awake. There are too many other things that need to be done.”

She quickly dispatched my excuse, commenting, “If you really liked to read you would just do it.”

Perhaps she thought I claimed reading was a hobby just to make me look good. I had a credibility gap with my daughter.

Recently, I pondered this conversation from several years ago. My children are older now and it would not be a problem to read during the weekend, yet still I never do. Somehow I feel guilty about sitting down in a chair in the middle of the day and doing “nothing.”  Whether it is personality or just plain habit, I always feel like I should be doing something. That is the dilemma of the never-ending at-home “to-do” list, the bane of all moms’ existence.

Further, if I am really honest about how I spend my down time, leisure is always combined with a purpose of some sort. When I exercise, I do it because it is good for me. I enjoy talking to my friends but try to combine visiting with walking the dog so I can check one more chore off the list for the day. I have friends who combine reading with a stationary bike or treadmill. But, why not read just for fun? Perhaps I got it all backwards; I should give myself permission to read not just because it is good “modeling” but because it is pleasurable. As my daughter advised, I should just make time to do it.

As solace, however, I discovered I am in good company. According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Labor survey, moms with kids at home between the ages of six to 17 spend an average of 10 minutes per day reading. If she has kids younger than age six her time decreases to seven minutes. That’s barely enough time to read the back of a cereal box at breakfast.

My new goal, a modest one, is to be above average. Rather than barely getting in a few pages while falling asleep at night I will aspire to read a book at least 11 minutes a day. Perhaps I can eventually work myself into a routine that stretches my daily average to 15 minutes.  If I really want to over-achieve I can shoot for 20 minutes on the weekend.

Watch out U.S. Department of Labor, I’ll be skewing your next survey from Seattle.

Carol Lewis Gullstad, October 17, 2011


Mother of the Tried

Regardless of the outcome of the Amanda Knox drama in Perugia, as the Italian judge read the verdict last week, my strongest emotion was profound relief for Amanda’s mother, Edda Mellas.

From the moment our children enter our lives, we love and support them – by and large, unconditionally. We revel in their successes – often inordinately — and secretly feel that our great genes or effective parenting may be responsible.

Whether our kids’ strengths are academic, athletic or artistic, most parents puff up with pride when a child performs well. (For proof, read some of the exuberant, long-winded Christmas letters that fly through the air each December.)

But here’s the rub: if you take credit for your kids’ successes, must you also bear the blame for their failures?

Amanda Knox is a lovely girl who studied at a high-caliber high school, was successful in sports and attended the University of Washington, a well-regarded university. She seems strong, capable and independent; she chose to study abroad, mastered a foreign language and landed a part-time job soon after arriving. Amanda’s achievements must have made her parents proud.

So, how did Edda Mellas feel four years ago, when the shocking news was broadcast from Perugia? All at once, the entire world heard reports that her 20-year-old daughter was having sex with a young Italian man, drinking alcohol and smoking hash. And what’s more, if the Italian media could be believed, she was engaging in drug-fueled sex games, and was potentially an accessory to her British roommate’s grisly murder.

Did Edda ever doubt her daughter’s innocence? Did she wonder “what went wrong,” or what she could have done differently? Did she look back at her own choices as a parent, and kick herself for mistakes she had made?

I can’t begin to understand the feelings that went through her head, but I do know that, like most parents, Amanda’s mom and dad gave everything they had – their love, their time, their encouragement and their money – to support their little girl. Over the past four years, they mortgaged homes, drained retirement accounts, used up vacation time, called in favors from friends, asked strangers for help and donations and worried themselves sick.

Not 30 minutes after hearing the Knox verdict, I received a phone call alerting me to one of my own child’s transgressions. It was nothing on the scale of murder, but serious enough to leave me shaking and wondering what my preventative role could have been. “Am I to blame? Is this the result of bad parenting? Did I miss signs of problems leading up to this?” I literally gasped for air and braced myself for the conversations with my child, husband and school adminstrators that would follow.

By the day’s end, the situation was more or less resolved, and I had stopped beating myself up. I accepted the fact some kids simply need to make mistakes to learn how to be act appropriately, and often it takes a dramatic incident to effect a necessary course correction. But through it all, I couldn’t help thinking about Amanda’s mom, and how we naturally feel pained by our children’s errors.

Later that night, I called up videos of the day’s drama in Italy, and watched an interview with Meredith Kercher’s sister and mother. The drained and desperate look on Arline Kercher’s face said it all: nothing will bring her baby back, nothing will right the wrong that ended her life too soon. Life will never, ever be the same for the Kercher family.

Over the past four years, Arline may have wondered if she was right to send her girl to Perugia, if she should have suggested a different living arrangement, if choices she made, or didn’t make, impacted her daughter’s involvement in whatever unfolded that night. But clearly, her demeanor in the courtroom showed that none of those questions or emotions is worth a shilling.

All we can do is love our kids for who they are, and accept that they are unique beings who make both good and bad choices, and who experience both successes and failures – and a lot in-between. Our primary job is simply to love and support them for the individuals they are, through thick and thin, for whatever time we have together.

Linda Williams Rorem, 10 Oct. 2011

One-Step Program

Spiral stair case.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently, Linda and I held a talk at a local library on the subject of “women, friendship and guilt” with the title “Frazzled Mom.” The women who walked in the door were curious about the subject matter, but also a bit hesitant.

“If I am attending this talk does it mean I am a self-identified frazzled mom?” said one.

“Will I walk away from this talk being less frazzled?” said another.

And one woman was just blunt: “I need help!”

If moms were pin-ball machines, there would be a constantly blinking light on their forehead saying “tilt.” The neon sign would represent the incredible stress that most women endure daily in their multiple roles as mothers, workers, spouses, community members, healers, givers and care-takers of children and their own parents.

Women long for relief, but are unsure what to give up and how to combat guilt. They want permission to hop off the crazy merry-go-round. They know their current lifestyle pace is unsustainable physically and emotionally. They need to regain some semblance of sanity.

We told the crowd during our opening remarks that we hoped they would learn some helpful information that they could use right away to make their lives feel more balanced. We also provided assurance that we were not a 12-step program. No one was going to stand up and say, “Hi my name is Sally, I am a Frazzled Mom and my life has become unmanageable.” There would be no making amends for past wrongdoings as a mom. There would be no sponsors with follow-up phone calls.

Let’s face it, once you become a mom, you are “on the wagon” for the rest of your life.  Your bundle of joy is your free pass into the fraternity of frazzleness. That’s the chapter left out of What to Expect When You are Expecting, because the authors undoubtedly concluded there was no point to freaking out readers.

We elicited a few laughs when we said that ours was actually a one-step program. The step we asked everyone to take was: give yourself permission to spend time with your friends.

The prescription we recommend sounds simple on the surface. We know our friends make us laugh, support us in times of crisis and generally make us feel good, but it is hard to carve out even a sliver of extra time in our

full schedules. In fact, we often tell ourselves that time spent being “unproductive” is “wasted.”  We don’t even recognize that a break could save us from burnout and make us more effective and happy. While we would not dream of skipping a vacation from a paid position, we struggle to take time off from parenting.

Most mothers do make the time to focus on two aspects of their health — mental and physical. However there is a third component, relationships, that is equally critical to total health. We call this real relationship component the “Friendship Phenomenon.”

According to scientific data, women lower each other’s stress and cholesterol levels, keep our weight in check, boost contentment in old age and actually add years to each other’s lives. Further, primate research on stress has shown that the emotional support of another human being is the only demonstrated force capable of reversing the longtime biological effects of stress on the human body.

So take the one-step even if it is a baby step: pick up the phone and call a friend.  Make arrangements to do some activity this week that lasts at least an hour — a walk, a cup of coffee, a trip to a local store. Shed the guilt and get going. We guarantee that if you meet up with a friend just for fun it will be a step that you will not regret.

Carol Lewis Gullstad, October 3, 2011

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