The Help, Northern-Style

Watching the lovely ladies of The Help during the Oscars (celebrating Octavia Spencer‘s victory while feeling that Viola Davis got “robbed”), I couldn’t help thinking of the many women who helped raise my own four children.

Most of us believe that “it takes a village” to raise good kids, and even if we aren’t ‘60s-era Southerners with full-time Mammies, we are still indebted to the relatives, friends and paid professionals who help out.

After all, who doesn’t appreciate the impact of having another adult tell your child, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important”?

In my early parenting days I, like millions of other women, sought advice from the What to Expect series and T. Berry Brazelton. Now, some 27 million mothers gain insights from the 8 million or so “mommy bloggers” on line.  However, there is still nothing like the mentoring and information that is delivered in person.

My own mother, who visited for several weeks after each child’s birth, demonstrated the calm, no-nonsense parenting style she used in raising her own brood of six children (born within eight years). My kids see Grandma W. just a few times each year, but always value the patient way she encourages them to learn deeply. They will forever remember watching her work as a Lincoln Park Zoo docent, knowing that one’s education never needs to end.

My husband’s family lives close by, so are more connected to my kids’ lives.  His parents are young and vibrant, and continue to model family values and cooperation as they take all “8 and up” grandchildren on a vacation every summer. The kids always seem to return home a little older and a lot more considerate. His sister was a parenting pro with two young boys when I met her, and I have learned so much about kindness and generosity through watching her.

While I am fortunate to enjoy a wide circle of supportive friends, one girlfriend in particular provided unparalleled support after my first baby arrived. Sadly, she had just lost a son – who died at 5 months of heart problems – so I worried that my boy’s birth might prohibit our friendship. To the contrary, she offered to serve as his nanny one day a week after I took a part-time job, and taught volumes about baby care and love. She and my son formed a special bond that is still strong 18 years later.

I worked part-time, in various capacities, until my fourth child was two years old. As such, I relied on the help of paid professionals, who often spent more waking hours with my kids than I did. At first, I struggled to abdicate control and secretly worried that they might be more qualified for child care than I was. But soon, I learned to value the unique contributions they could offer.

  • Paige reminded me to set chores aside – the dishes and laundry could wait – and have fun with the kids. I often arrived home from work to find the kids dancing in the living room or digging for worms in the yard. Yes, I might also find a mess in the kitchen or unmatched outfits, but I soon learned that the kids’ happiness mattered more than the house’s order.
  • Sarah 1, who we “stole” from the Montessori school my toddlers attended, continued the school’s important teachings in our home, so the kids really learned to be self-sufficient and self-directed. I will always be grateful for the little slip of paper she left me when still teaching at the school, at a time when my husband lay in a coma at the hospital, his life literally teetering on the edge: “Please call me if I can help in any way,” she wrote. “I will come and watch your kids any time.”
  • Sara 2 won me over with her calm, soothing voice, when she replied to my advertisement. I had just met with a nanny I planned to hire, but decided to invite Sara over for a chat. I knew immediately the 23-year-old was just what we needed in a very tumultuous time.One of the most important lessons I learned from Sara 2 was to try to see life from a child’s perspective. We mothers often complain that a child “kept me up all night” with hunger or fever, “made a royal mess in his diaper” or “embarrassed me with a tantrum in public.” When I attempted to get sympathy from Sara after a particularly short and difficult night with a sick kid, her reply was, “Oh, poor baby. He must have been feeling terrible.” That one sentence shocked me to my senses, and changed the way I approached parenting. 

 Sara 2 is due to deliver her first child in April, and I am so excited for both mother and baby-to-be. Whether or not Sara receives outside help in child-rearing, I am certain that her child will grow up feeling the love and confidence equal to what Aibileen gifted Mae Mobley (and 16 other kids) in The Help.

 –          Linda Williams Rorem, 28 Feb. 2012

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Father Knows Best

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Last week Linda wrote about the virtues of being a Mean Mommy and the complicated mix of discipline and love required to raise children, not friends. The tricky teenage years were a focus and the article inspired some provocative comments. However, nothing was more intriguing than the response by a doting dad.

He read the blog and posted a message on the author’s Facebook wall. He took issue with the blog, and as such, the writer’s parenting style. His response was tempered by the fact that he is an older parent with just one child, a nine-year-old girl, and he stated that he gained much of his parenting experience raising dogs. He advocated his approach as parenting on an individual basis, apparently interpreting the “mean mom” way as “one size fits all.” Admittedly, this mom’s inner-tiger was ready to pounce.

One reader, a local dad, saw the post and imagined sending the following reply, “I think “Sam” is right on. He’s trained dogs, and has a nine-year-old. There can’t be much else to learn.

Dog training is especially useful in understanding kids. Many similarities in behavior. Why just the other day I was admiring a 13-year-old golden retriever, and thinking how much dogs are like kids. The loyalty, devotion and absolute unconditional love that dog displayed is just like most 13-year-old girls demonstrate toward their parents.

Yes, Sam old boy…as a parent of four myself (and having trained three fine dogs) I can assure you that there will be no future surprises for you in your relationship with your daughter. None. You nailed it buddy. Kick back. It just gets easier and easier from here on. Really.”

Don’t you love it? Cleary, father number two shows promise for membership in the “Mean Dad Club.”

While dads may not typically swap parenting tips as readily as moms (note that both comments were not posted on the blog page), we know they struggle with the same issues. They share more parenting duties than the previous generation, so it is no surprise to see the appearance of dad blogs such as Dadcentric, Always Home and Uncool, Stay at Stove Dad and Dude to Dad. We also see evidence of battle fatigue in highly popular satiric children’s books by dads, Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansback and Monsters Eat Whiny Children by Bruce Eric Kapla.

While many moms feel they inherit the position of family CMO (Chief Mean Officer) this is a promising sign that dads and moms can work together as a solid “mean team.” No one enjoys being the sole homework nag, chore tyrant and curfew commander. Sorry Sam, kids just don’t respond to “Sit. Stay. Study.”

Raising human beings is complicated, challenging and sometimes unpleasant. So it’s especially gratifying when dads and moms know they are in this together, trying to do their best.

Carol Lewis Gullstad, February 21, 2012

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The Mean Mom Club

The Mean Mom Club.

The Mean Mom Club

When some friends and I formed a new book club a few years ago, we learned the local bookstore would give us a discount if we registered our club and its monthly selections. We discussed potential club names, and realized that “Meanest Mommies” was perfect, as that’s what we’re all called at home.

It turns out that our club name and no-nonsense parenting style was part of a trend, a reaction against the coddling, cheer-leading, here’s-a-trophy-for-joining-the-team method that was popular when our kids were younger.

In the past few years, a host of mean mommy blogs – including themeanestmom.blogspot.com and www.meanestmommy.com — have popped up, all flaunting the same, “I’m not supposed to be your friend, I’m supposed to teach you how to be an honest, hard-working contributor to society” bent.

In my view, this “mean mommy” approach to parenting fills a nice void between the hyper-controlling helicopter moms, the super-driven Tiger Moms and the latest flavor of the month, the detached, extra-strict French style presented in Pamela Druckerman’s new Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.

In our house, the meanest mommy in the world makes the kids complete 10 tasks a day to earn allowance (make their beds, clear their plates, put their clothes in the laundry and, most important, take on one job that contributes to the household’s functioning, such as emptying the dishwasher or folding laundry).

Early on, this mean mommy was inspired by a wonderful book entitled Mitten Strings for God (it isn’t as religiously oriented as it sounds), in which the author’s edicts include a ban on criticizing “the chef.” In that woman’s home, as in mine, if the kids don’t like what’s offered for dinner, after trying everything, they can quietly leave the table, grab two slices of bread and some cheese, and return with that simple sandwich.

At our house, kids must pay for clothes they don’t “absolutely need.” They must check in whenever they are out, can’t sleep at other kids’ homes after eighth grade, have an early curfew and get “grounded” for disrespecting rules.

This mean mommy pays for the kids’ cell phone service, but insists that their primary purpose is to enable communication within the family. So, if she calls a child and he or she doesn’t answer or call back within 10 minutes, the phone disappears for a while.

This mommy is so mean, she bags up clothes that are left on the floor too long, and tells the kids the items will be donated to the thrift store, or the kids can buy them back at thrift-store rates.

To be clear, this mean mommy loves her kids enormously, and they know it. We rarely end a phone call or text without an “I love you” or xoxo, we trust and confide in each other and we share wonderful tender moments. And, while my kids aren’t perfect people (who is?), I am very, very proud of them. However, they are works in progress, and I am grateful for advice and information from other moms.

Where we live, MOB (Mother of Boys) groups have been popular for years. These groups of moms, generally gathered by their sons’ grade level, meet on a regular basis to discuss age-appropriate issues (first junk food and PG-13 movies, later homework and “screen time” issues, then allowance and curfews and finally, well, female and substance concerns).

One of the greatest aspects of the MOB groups is returning home and telling your child that six of your friends don’t allow “what every other mom in town” permits. After a while, kids grow so suspicious of MOB meetings, they’ll try to keep their mothers from attending – illnesses, need for homework help, erasing phone messages; everything short of lost limbs.

Now, the internet has made some of those MOB groups obsolete. As an example, two weeks ago a very venerable mom in our community sent an email to a few dozen friends stating, “[My son] assures me that ALL the 2nd semester senior boys have had their curfews  removed and that everyone can stay out as late as they want with no ramifications(!).” She wanted a “reality check,” and the internet swiftly flooded with responses, most assuring the mean mom that she wasn’t alone; that their kids still had midnight curfews, too.

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being mean.” Because we love our little creatures so much, we are tempted to do whatever it takes to make them happy. For their part, kids learn at a very young age how to pull just the right heartstrings at just the right moment. However, we mean mommies understand that in life, we can’t always get what we want when we want it.

Linda Williams Rorem, 13 Feb. 2012
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Stress: Silent Killer

“Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.”

I muttered this to myself several times this week as I visited with an aging relative who is known for leaving a scorched-earth trail of stress wherever he goes. I kept telling myself to stay calm and avoid emotional traps and land mines that were ready to explode.

I managed to survive the visit without regretting my choice of words, and without elevating my stress beyond my ability to cope.

I think I made my dog proud.

However, my experience caused me to think once again about the relationship between stress and health.

A few months ago, Linda and I gave a lecture at a local library. We touted the benefits of friendship in helping women cope with stress. We were fortunate to have many women’s health experts in the auditorium  that day including physicians, psychologist and psychiatrists.

One of the audience members was Dr. Jane Dimer,  an OBGYN who is also the Womens Health Service Line Chief at Group Health in Seattle, Wash. In her practice, Dr. Dimer counsels her patients to limit stress as an important part of their overall wellness and health. She points to Dr. Robert Sapolsky as a pioneer in this field.

Robert Sapolsky is a biologist specializing in neuro-endocrinology. He’s a professor and conducts research at Stanford University and has been studying the biochemistry of the brain and the physiology of stress for 30 years. It is Sapolsky’s work in studying primates that helped popularize the phrase, “stress is a killer.” National Geographic created a documentary about his work titled, Stress:Portrait of a Killer,  in 2008. Just viewing the highlight reel is enough to elevate one’s “fight-or-flight”  response.

According to Sapolsky, stress is bad for our nervous system and stomach walls, can impair our ability to learn and can disconnect our neurons, and that is just a small sample of the damage. Although stress had been previously attributed to a state of mind or societal condition it can now be measured in our blood and urine and quantified in terms of glucocorticoids and norepinephrine and adrenal hormones. These chemicals are bad news and many studies now prove that chronic stress literally destroys the body and shortens life.

Read Sapolsky’s work or view this brief video summary more and podcasts through this page: http://killerstress.stanford.edu/.

For our extra curious readers, you can test your knowledge about stress by taking the National Geographic stress quiz here: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/stress-quiz.html

Anyone exposed to Sapolsky’s work or a top-notch doctor such as Dimer cannot help but feel the immediate urge to simplify life, get a full night’s sleep and prioritize positive social gatherings. In fact, my own self-diagnosis upon my return from my stress-producing trip was to cover myself in a blanket of good friends.

Looking for happy “connections” has taken on a whole new meaning.

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Carol Lewis Gullstad, February 6, 2012


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