Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Freelance Writer/Mom

The moment I realized I was crying -- outwardly weeping -- because I could not find my sunglasses and I needed to go outside and get Ethan from school and didn't want people to actually SEE I'd been crying was when I acknowledged that yes, it had been a very bad afternoon.

What's worse than a toddler who doesn't feel like napping but rather engaging in destructive practices? A toddler who doesn't feel like napping but being destructive, WHILE mom is trying to do work.

I do have another job, right now, even though I've tried to keep it to a minimum, working primarily around naps and early in the morning. Sometimes this all goes splendidly and I'm living the balanced life of being at home while still using my brain in a different way, and all is good. Other times? Well.

What happened that afternoon? The question should probably be what DIDN'T happen. I desperately needed to be on the phone scheduling things, while Chloe desperately wanted to stay up and wreak havoc. In every room. She left no stone unturned. Books off shelves? DVDs on floor? File folders emptied out and spread randomly all over the dining room? Sure, why not. I could not SEE her bedroom floor. Then, there was the potty no-so-much-of-an-accident. Things get really, really ugly when they don't have a diaper on. The horror! And all of this while I was attempting to reach people who ignored deadlines and were infuriatingly unreachable. Good times.

I always have to add a disclaimer, when people ask what I "do" for a career, and I tell them I mostly stay at home with my kids, but that I'm a freelance writer/editor as well.

"It's not as glamorous as you might think. I mostly write health care articles," I sometimes say, in case their idea of a freelancer is that I'm dashing off magazine articles or possibly novels. Or, maybe they are like my eighth grade self, who figured it just might be possible to stay at home all day, keep an eye on my children, and become fabulously rich writing about young adult characters. I had stacks and stacks of my "books" lying around my room -- stories about "Jessica" and "Tiffany" and the trials and tribulations of middle school.

That vision lasted a few years until career day in high school, when I attended a session with quite possibly the most depressed journalist on the planet. "Don't do this," he essentially told us, which I thought was rather strange on a day designated for kids to explore their dream careers. His demoralized attitude got me thinking, and before I knew it I'd decided to pursue psychology in college instead of journalism. Only, after a year I was disillusioned with too many crackpot theories, and particularly by psych professors who seemed more depressed and disillusioned than that journalist back in high school. So after winning the freshman essay contest, I decided to switch to an English major, which led to everyone in the world asking me, "Oh, are you going to teach?"

"No, I want to write," I'd tell people, which they thought was rather hysterical. Even my advisor, well-meaning as she was, suggested I pursue a health career. That's where the jobs were, she reiterated, and asked if I'd consider becoming a nutritionist. Which -- to this day -- is so laughable I'm not sure how I respectfully exited her office.

Yet somehow I DID become a writer (with some video producing thrown in for good measure), and wouldn't you know, a writer on health care topics, after taking a last-semester internship in Marketing and Public Relations for a large local health system. A year later I was hired, and when I left seven years after that when Anna was a baby, I began taking on projects on a freelance basis.

Which is where we are today, and I am immensely grateful to have a chance to be home with my kids and get to write, and get paid for it (even if I'm not writing books but rather articles about medical procedures). I've learned a few things on this 10-year plus journey through freelancing and mothering. Sometimes, unfortunately, I forget what I've learned, which leads to days like above. But in my more wise moments, I remember:

1) There are days you just have to turn on the TV for a little while for your child so you can get your work done. Your child will not be permanently scarred. You will finish whatever you need to get done infinitely more quickly than with someone tugging on your sleeve and asking for more juice. Again.

2) When dealing with people who are convinced of their superiority (this happens sometimes -- not always! -- with physician interviews in particular) it's always best to admit your ignorance up front. Willingly own your lack of knowledge, and they are immediately disarmed and a bit more sympathetic and patient when you don't fully understand their "medical speak" and ask them to elaborate.

3) When I'm on conference calls and think there could even be a chance of being interrupted by a young child, I give everyone a heads-up. Because there's nothing worse than talking business and then having a little voice pipe into the conversation, "I have to go pee-pee!" This, sadly, I learned from experience.

4) When a big project takes over, something's got to go. In our case, it's the house. I've got not choice but to put some of the less essential cleaning chores on hold. The way I figure: I'd rather my kids recall me putting the household chores aside rather than putting them aside to vacuum.

5) Working from home means never fully escaping your job -- which can be the greatest blessing, or curse. I love the luxury of answering emails at 5:30 a.m. I hate the pressure of knowing I COULD be working on a Saturday, if I really needed to.

There are always going to be days like last week's nightmarish afternoon. I am still trying to get questionable smells out of our living room rug. And I may never publish a novel about Jessica and Tiffany, or have that newspaper column I always dreamed of (who reads newspapers, anyway)?? But I am so glad to be able to do this work thing and kid thing, as crazy as it may sometimes be. Tears and all. I can work in my jammies while sipping tea. How could I possibly not be thankful for that?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Visit to Room 2

I'm convinced teachers have one of the most entertaining jobs in the world.

The other day Ethan's class invited parents to come in and hear some of the writing pieces they'd been working on. Wouldn't you know, Ethan was completely fine with this UNTIL we were walking down the street that morning and I was about to say goodbye.

"I don't want to do this. I don't want to read in front of everyone," he said, literally standing at the stoplight waiting to cross the street. Nothing like procrastinating about your fears.

"Ethan, it's okay. You're going to do great."

"My writing is awful! Ask her if this can just be optional!" Now he was really upset.

First, I straightened him out about his writing. It's not awful. Of course, as his parent, I wouldn't tell him straight out if it was, but Ethan writes surprisingly well. His teacher was really amused by some of his stories last year.

But that out of the way, I felt the conundrum again. I think every parent feels this. How do you know when you're pushing your kids too far? You don't want them to think saying "no" to difficult things is always an option. But you don't want them to be tormented with fear, either.

He had to cross the street, so I just called out something about emailing his teacher and tried to act upbeat to cheer him up. When I wrote to her, I said what I always end up saying: that we push Ethan to stretch himself sometimes, and will make accommodations for him, but it shouldn't be the first option.

She said she was fine with having him come up front and if he was still too nervous she would read with him standing next to him. That sounded like a good plan.

And so we arrived at 2:15. Chloe had christened herself with green glitter glue just before we left that would only partially come out of her face and hands. Lovely. We traipsed into the classroom and sat down to hear what was on the minds of 20 third graders.

I love, love, love this age. They are still too innocent to criticize each other's stories or to roll their eyes. They each wrote about a moment that was important to them: sleepovers, Six Flags, trips to visit relatives. I loved the kid who scored "30 touchdowns." He I believe was also the child who recounted the day his dad stepped on the gas instead of the brake and crashed into the car in front of them.

I wonder if his dad knew what he had chosen to write about? And this is when I think again of teachers, and of all of the stories they hear, the statements about home and parents and families that they must take in day in and day out...and try to mask their amusement, or perhaps shock. How much of what they are saying do you really believe, when you are an elementary school teacher? That thought provides a little comfort. I can only imagine...or don't wish to imagine the things my own child has blurted out. Sometimes I wonder -- do they look at us at parent-teacher conferences and think about us pressing the gas and not the brake? Do they constantly have to shake certain images or statements out of their heads? Have they just learned to laugh most things off because much of what a child may say is truth wrapped inside a whole lot of fiction?

One child shared in passing about how messy his mom's car was (as I've written about my own messy car in this very blog, you can bet I was thinking it was only chance that that wasn't my kid -- this time).

And somewhere in there was Ethan's story. He stood next to the teacher (wearing his coat! Of course he wouldn't answer when I asked why he still had it on; it was 80 degrees in there) and she began. He had decided to write about our cat getting run over.

Geesh. Nothing like a really morbid topic to end of the school day. I hoped no one would start crying.

I'm not surprised Ethan would choose to write about that day. It was obviously traumatic. Not only did he have a 104-degree fever but his cat got hit by an oil truck.

It's amazing the way I found myself editing internally as he was reading. He mentioned he was home sick and then that he went to the store before going to the doctor.

Wait, that implies he really wasn't THAT sick. Or does it imply I have no problem taking my child to stores when they are sick? Wait, we only went to the store to get medicine AFTER the doctor!

Then he talked about the moment I looked out and found our poor cat lying near the street. "And his eyes were OPEN!!!" he had written.

Eeth, you kind of left out the part that I thought he was sleeping, and then I noticed he wasn't blinking. But then again, that was even more creepy. God forbid the kids go home with nightmares.

He concluded it all with, "And we will never forget that fateful day." Which sounds an awfully lot like something he heard from somewhere. I couldn't help but almost start laughing, which sounds really awful when the kid just read about the day his cat died.

Then we all had some snacks and it was time to clear out of there as the end of the school day was fast approaching.

I left thinking, as I always do, that I don't know how teachers do it, day in and day out. I'd be so exhausted by the end of the day I probably wouldn't be able to do anything but meet my basic needs. But they also must have a wildly entertaining time of it sometimes. Maybe that's just a small part of what makes it all worth it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Comparison Game

Lately Ethan has discovered more than ever before that there are very real differences between himself and other people -- and I've found myself quoting all of those parental clichés that are annoying to hear when you're a child.

Let me be clear -- I don't mean differences that have anything to do with autism, but rather Ethan is noticing that different kids have different rules, different talents, different strengths and weaknesses.

A lot of this has come out, ironically, due to another kid in Ethan's class who is on the spectrum (I believe he too shared this information with his classmates last year). We'll call him George. Apparently they get along well enough in real life, but for some reason Ethan is often commenting on George. First it was the Doritos. Ethan was furious because George gets Doritos every day for a snack. Doritos are Ethan's all-time favorite food. If we had them in the house all of the time, they wouldn't last long. We try to save them for parties or other special occasions. Ethan was perfectly fine having fruit snacks at school -- until he had to sit there and watch George tantalizingly crunch into Doritos every day.

One afternoon after a particularly rough day that also involved an unsuccessful Minecraft venture Ethan started yelling about how unfair it was, that every day George ate Doritos, that I gave him horrible food, and that I was yes, a "Meanie." I wonder if I should consider that a badge of honor. He also gave me an earful about another friend who had a TV in his room, and a friend that got to play Wii before school.

"I'm sorry you're upset," I told him, "but that's the way it goes sometimes. Different families have different rules." I may have also thrown in the "life isn't always fair" line, trying to break some kind of record for the most clichés packed into one sentence.

The thing is: it's true, and there's no way around it. We're not putting a TV in his room; if he plays Wii in the morning we'll never make it to school; he doesn't need Doritos every day. Although I did go out not long after and get some "healthy" ones from a local company that were actually darned good.

This comparison stuff hasn't just been about material things, and it hasn't just been about Ethan feeling bad comparing himself to someone else. The other day he blurted out, "No offense, but [George] is a baby. He's still reading Berenstain Bear books at reading time. And he goes to bed at 7:30 at night."

Side note: I just love how he starts off with "no offense," as if to say "I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but I'm about to trash you." I hope he's not copying that from me. Eek.

So then we had another talk about how everyone is at a different level and has different strengths and weaknesses (never mind that he reads Berenstain Bear books for fun at home!), and how some people need more or less sleep and that doesn't make them a "baby," and most importantly how would he feel if people were calling him a baby because of something he said or did? It saddens me to write this, but there may be kids doing that right now in his class, and he just hasn't noticed.

I've been thinking a little more about this whole comparison game. I know it's part of human nature and human development. In middle school it gets even more intense. Everyone has to know what everyone else is doing so they can do likewise, or better. Anna was telling me how utterly mortifying it was last year to watch a girl show up on Halloween in a bumblebee costume -- the only person to arrive at school thinking it was okay to dress up. My visceral reaction hearing the story (I felt my entire body cringe) reminded me of how often I too still struggle with comparing myself to others or appearing different.

Yes, kids will be kids, and part of growing up is discovering your life and family are different than other people's. Sadly, part of life in our culture also seems to be realizing there is a norm, a place where you "should" be and other areas where you should never tread, lest you want to invite ridicule. When that's where we learn to fix our gaze, it's time to take stock.

There's that saying that "comparison is the thief of joy." It's also the mirror that reflects when we aren't really confident in who we are.

I thought about the girl in the bumblebee costume. I wondered what it would be like to walk the halls hearing whispers and giggles and just.not.care. I had to correct myself.

"Anna, we're laughing and feeling sorry for that girl, but I think we need to be more like her," I said. I thought about the message at church that Sunday from a young guy who really has a passion to see people touched by God. He'd had the guts to go up to people at a mall and ask to pray for them. And a number of them said no. Yet he kept asking, because he cared about other people more than he cared about their opinion of him. Could I do that? Could I, the one who is still stressed if I say the slightly wrong thing or am a little over or under dressed to a party?

Comparison steals our freedom. Someday someone might snicker at Ethan and his unconventional way of doing or saying certain things. It's comparison that wants us to meld into the crowd like a chameleon.

I hope each of us will aim to be the bumblebee.