Friday, June 28, 2013

This IS Vacation

So much on my mind this week...and it's the first time I've had a chance to sit down and say something. Maybe I should write something political, but my friends the columnists have done such a good job. So I'm not going to hold court here about the loss of the Voting Rights Act, the end of DOMA, the triumph of Wendy Davis, and the senate's bill giving hope at last for fair treatment of the undocumented.

Instead, I'm going to talk about the personal. Because I find myself in a strange predicament this week. I'm without two of my three kids, who are off at sleep-away camp. Like my two-year-old, I keep looking for them everywhere, and they're nowhere to be found. (Except, on occasion, on the camp website, where I may have the luck to find one or both of them deep in a selection of hundreds of photos. One mom noted on Facebook that she can recognize her kid by the corner of a shoe. It's an addiction. As soon as they're spotted, you want more. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.)

This is not the first time that they've both been away, or that I've been away from them. Last summer, Bella went to camp for one session, and Ruby overlapped with her for a week. But this year, Bella's away for 7 weeks, and Ruby for 4. That's a long time.

I was so harried moving, helping the kids finish school, and getting organized and packing for camp, that I didn't have much time to consider what it would be like with the kids gone. It was the day after they left that Josh said to me, "Why'd we have to send them away for so long?" [Some Israeli friends, who can't wrap their brains around the American institution of summer camp, jokingly chided that it's child abuse.]

Why, indeed? For one thing, they wanted to go. When I was a kid, camp was a given, not a choice. But I always said I wouldn't send my kids unless they wanted to go. My girls were SO EXCITED for camp. They woke up at 5 am the day they were leaving, like people do when they have to catch a plane for a long-anticipated trip. Looking at the photos, camp looks like one long vacation for those lucky kids. Like Club Med, without the parents at night.

I went to camp for seven summers as a camper, and three on staff, and there's no question that the experience shaped me. I made some of my deepest friends, and each summer had more memories by far than the school years in between. By the time I was in college I couldn't think of coming home for a summer. How would I cope just hanging out with my parents?

I think that now, more than ever, freedom for children is scarce. What a gift for a child to be sent off on her own for a few weeks, knowing that she's not really on her own at all. She has friends and counselors there to help her, coupled with increased incentive to figure things for herself, without Mom and Dad in the background. It's hard not knowing all the details of my kids' lives, but at the same time, it's a gift for them to learn self-reliance, and to find out all the ways in which they don't need me.

So what is a parent to do, with their kids gone? In all my summers at camp, I never thought for a moment about what it was like for my parents back at home. I guess I assumed it was one glorious kid-free vacation for them. Alas, my (pre-children) daydreams of summering in Tuscany while the kids are at camp was squashed by the reality of paying camp tuition. This really IS our vacation. For them, it's the time of their lives. For us, it's a few weeks to focus on the little one, and to be able to float by with less structure. We will all blink our eyes and find ourselves packing school backpacks, come September.

Friday, June 21, 2013

On Toddler Anxiety and Ceiling TVs

I just love this picture, because you need to look twice to see what's going on. At first, it looks really scary: the gloved hands, the draped child lying on her back, the instruments. But then you look closer and you see the Cat in the Hat design on the paper bib, and the sunglasses on the face of the child. Also, notice this: no one is holding her down; her hands and legs are relaxed; she's not crying. Two-year-old Louisa laid still for I'm guessing at least ten minutes (wish I had timed it, but I was too busy picking my jaw off the floor), as she had her teeth cleaned by Dr. Ruby Gelman for the first time.

You should know:

1. This child fights us every single time I or her dad try to brush her upper teeth. The bottoms she submits to, if we're quick, but when it's time to do the uppers, she pulls her lip down in a defensive pose, clenches her teeth shut, and fights us off like a feral creature ("All done! No more! That's it!" she says, turning her face away). The whole process takes no more than half a minute, except for the occasions when I really want to get in there--which means I make her cry. (When she's crying, she opens her mouth. Poor child.)

2. She has historically been nervous at the pediatrician's office. She used to cling to me from the moment the elevator doors opened. We were able to stave off some of her anxiety by doing a lot of pretend doctor play at home prior to her most recent visit. But she's not what you would call relaxed.

3. For her first dentist appointment, I had very low expectations. We were there for her older sisters' check ups and cleanings, and I figured Louisa would get to practice sitting in the chair, and that Dr. Gelman might - might - get her to open her mouth wide enough so she could report to me on the dire effects of our failure to properly brush her upper teeth.

Here's how it actually went down. Louisa was having a ball watching her sisters get their teeth cleaned. She was playing with the teeth-themed toys in the brightly-colored exam room, and was gleefully chewing on the new toothbrush that she'd been given when we first arrived. Half-way through her older sister's cleaning, she said "my turn!" and tried to climb up onto the exam chair. When it finally was her turn to get into the chair, I didn't have to pry her off of me, or get into the chair with her, as I might have predicted--because she couldn't wait. Dr. Gelman cued up an episode of Dora on her magical TV on the ceiling, and the child was in heaven.

Ten minutes (or so) later, I had a toddler with sparkling teeth. And, (phew!) a positive report about the health of those uppers.

Sometimes it's not possible to put kids' comfort first--a child needs to be examined by the doctor or dentist, whether they like it or not, and sometimes it's gonna be scary and sometimes it's gonna hurt. But many other times no one even tries to put the child at ease, because the outcome is more important than the experience of the child. Children are not little grown-ups, and seeing my toddler in a dental exam chair really brought home to me how mysterious this world must be to her. With a little forethought, and a lot of gentleness, a really scary experience can turn into a much more pleasant one.

Now, if only we could play Dora on the ceiling at home...

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Mad Scramble

It's the last day of the school year tomorrow, and I'm so proud of my rising 4th and 5th graders. They have handled having their lives uprooted in the last month of school with aplomb. Next week, they're off to camp-- happily and with excitement. How terrific for us all: a break from routine on all ends.

But, before they leave, logistical concerns must be addressed.

The main affair this week is to finish packing for camp, as the bags are being picked up by the mandatory luggage delivery service on Friday. This is a challenge. The camp packing list requires a very large number of garments (9 shorts? 15 shirts? 20 socks? Yowza), way more than we usually have in rotation. The challenge of laying out all these clothes, in addition to the flashlights, sleeping bags, shoe bags, and other required accoutrement, in the kids' shared bedroom that has not yet been entirely unpacked from our move, has been formidable, to say the least. We'll get those bags packed, but it may be in the middle of the night on Thursday, after I've washed and dried everything the girls have worn this week. Of course, once the bags are packed, the kids will have to go naked until they leave for camp on Tuesday.

So here I am, trying to dot all the i's for camp, and looking forward to a nice long summer break, when I realize the end of this school year means I'm supposed to be thinking about NEXT school year. That's right. School medical forms are due by the end of June. Better get on that. Summer reading lists have also been distributed, so I suppose I should go through the lists and put together a nutritious book pack for each girl. Also, a friend reminded me that I need to sign up for after school programs now, otherwise my children may get shut out of their desired classes next fall.

Sometimes I think it's a wonder that my kids have had the benefit of any kind of formal education at all. It means I've somehow managed to get the forms in, and get the packing done, and make the registration dates, for this and for that, year in and year out. Although each time, it seems like a mad scramble.

My method (if there is one)? Part putting best foot forward in terms of organization and planning, and part simple belief that it will all work out in the end. My girls will get to camp with plenty of stuff in their bags, and if they happen to have one-too-few pajama tops, they will borrow a friend's or wear a t-shirt or otherwise problem-solve their way out of this imagined disaster. You just gotta believe. And, probably best to get those medical forms in, too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What's It All For? Kids' School Reflections

Ruby, my third grader, told me the other day that the end of the school year is tiring. Why? "We have to reflect about everything."

Oh yes, it's that time of year when students in progressive schools everywhere are asked to write reflections on their favorite and least-favorite subjects, on their strengths and weaknesses, and on their progress as learners.

My kids have been doing these kinds of reflections since the start of their education. Here's a reflection that Bella wrote at the end of first grade. She was shown a sample of her writing from the beginning of that year, and was asked, "What do you notice about this writer? What were you like as a writer back then?" 

"I didn't have as good handwriting and now I can spell better. I thought that writing has to be really interesting and fun but now I really understand that writing can be anything. You can write about what you did in the weekend, like going to the movies or cooking with your mom."
Wow, education has come a long way. In my day, the teachers wrote the reflections, if they wrote anything at all (didn't they just write a letter grade?). We knew what kind of learners we were, depending on whether we were in the "smart" group (in math, or English, etc.), the "regular" group, or the "slow" group.

Now, it's a bit more like a corporate evaluation, where kids evaluate themselves, and teachers are able to see how those reflections correspond to or deviate from their own professional sense of each child as a student. There are benefits for the teacher: for instance, if Shira keeps saying she's terrible at math, even though the teachers know she's on target, there may be a problem with the teaching strategy or the overall message.

But even better, in my view, is that this method makes the children conscious of the purpose of their education. School is not a place where we stick kids until they're old enough to get a job; school is a place to learn things, and reflections help students become aware and take ownership of what they've learned.

Sometimes I think we'd all benefit from more reflecting. How am I doing as a mother, compared with this time last year? As a friend? As a writer? As a family chef? Am I meeting my goals, and if not, which ones have I let slip? It's easy to get on the treadmill and just keep walking, without taking the time to notice the changing scenery.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Movin' On Up, To the West Side

Whew. Moving will really take the steam out of a blog. It pretty much upended everything going on in my life, these last couple of weeks. And it's been inevitably unsettling for the kids, too, even though the last thing we wanted was to shake up their lives. If we could have moved in the middle in the night--you know, packed everything up while they were sleeping, and made it all reappear, perfectly arranged and put away in our new home when they woke up in the morning--I would for sure have done that. All I want is to keep things nice and stable for them. Which is why we moved here to begin with.

We considered leaving the city, in favor of the home-with-a-yard American dream. But we like our urban life, and so do they. And especially, we love their school, and the community that they are a part of there. We didn't want to wrest them from that, in the middle of the elementary school years, when they already had to switch schools a few years ago when we returned from London. So we moved from a vibrant downtown neighborhood, our home since before we got married, to a quiet old-world block four blocks from their school. That's right, their school commute has been reduced by over 80 city blocks, and we all got back a full hour of the morning that they previously spent on a big yellow bus.

But the experience was far from my smooth-move fantasy. As luck, or the real estate gods, would have it, we had to move right in that busiest time of the elementary school year calendar when all recitals and performances and parties occur, which also happens to be the time when we parents are supposed to be diligently checking things off the camp packing list. In addition, the days and times just wouldn't line up the way I wanted. If we could have moved on a Thursday or Friday, then we could have sent the girls to their grandparents' for the weekend, and have had time to set up the place. But we couldn't. Many factors were against us, and our move was set for a Tuesday. A Tuesday! Which means the girls had to sleep on Monday night with all of their belongings boxed and wrapped around them, and come home from school on Tuesday to a new apartment that looked like the inside of an Amazon warehouse. Lucky for us, in our new neighborhood we have good friends around many corners, and the girls went to friends' for homework and dinner after school. The move, of course, took longer than we thought it would, so at six pm I called and said, "can they stay a little longer?" At 7:15 they came home, and they could barely walk into their new room. 

By Thursday evening last week we were able to excavate the dining table, and ate a meal there with our first visitors: my parents and brother, who was able to casually stop by on his way home from work: score. (Delivery from Amsterdam Burger: score two!). The place was still, honestly, a mess. But we kept at it. I didn't stop unpacking, and hardly sat down, until about 12pm on Friday, when I stopped unpacking and started packing. We were going away for the weekend, to the annual school Shabbaton, at a camp in scenic Columbia County. And we had no choice but to walk (drive) away, and relax. Never been so thankful for Shabbos.

It's been a week now, and we've done war with the boxes. There are a couple of pictures on the wall. The kitchen is fully functional, and last night I cooked a proper meal of chicken and potatoes in it (this after Bella asked me the day before why all we do is order in.) The books are still in boxes and I'm  intimidated by them because we definitely don't have enough bookcases. I've been wondering if maybe books don't belong in homes anymore, in this day of digital book readers. (Ok, come on you bibliophiles, give it to me...but don't worry, we're going to unpack the books. Eventually.) 

It's all coming together, poco a poco. And I'm learning the old-fashioned way that big life events like moving a family do not happen overnight. You'd think I would have known that, having done this before, and last time, internationally. But a good friend said to me the other day that she can't remember her last move at all; there must be a moving-induced amnesia. I can't wait til mine kicks in.

Here's one plus: if we had shades on our windows, I probably wouldn't have been up writing this at 5am. (I blame the toddler, who woke up and started talking before 4:30. Although she went back to sleep, and I...didn't.). Now I know there's something else I should be doing...where's that camp list?!