Mommy Magnetism

This is a slightly edited re-post from 2014, when my kids were 16, 15 and 10. Now they are are 20, 19 and 14, one’s away at university and one has a job, the youngest is three years away from college. I think about these days a lot now, as they don’t happen very often anymore. I miss it.

I remember learning about magnets in school, but only understand on an intuitive level how they work.  Metal attracts to metal, and it has something to do with poles and fields (no-one ever accused me of being scientifically-minded).  Now that I am a mother, I have discovered another magnetic effect, an attraction not between metals but between organic materials, manifesting itself on a daily basis in my house.

My kids are magnetically attracted to me.  It’s the only explanation for why I can’t get  more than four feet away from them before I find them trailing behind me.  The trigger for this effect is any attempt on my part for a few minutes of alone time.  I can go unnoticed by them for hours when they are busy with their own activities, a comforting presence in their peripheral vision, but leave the room and all three kids gradually become aware that something in their universe is amiss. One child will eventually start a search.  From my basement bedroom, where I’ve gone with my tea to escape the atmospheric onslaught of music, video games, movies and sibling arguments, I can hear the process unfold:

“Mom?  Mom… (footsteps)… where’s Mom?”

“I don’t know.”

Footsteps down the hall.  “Where’s Mom?”

“I don’t know.  Get out of my room!”

Door slams, followed by more footsteps to the living room, the kitchen, and the bathroom; then they head to the top of the basement steps.

“MOM?  YOU DOWN THERE??”  I don’t answer; it’s not really necessary.  I sip my tea, awaiting the inevitable.  I’ve been down here less than ten minutes.

The footsteps now come down the stairs.  There is a pause, and then my ten year old daughter, Mikaela, appears in my doorway.  A huge smile, tinged with relief, spreads across her face.

“Hi Mommy!”  She comes in and throws herself on my bed.  “Me want cuddle with Mommy,” she says, clambering over the mattress to snuggle under my arm.  My drink sloshes precariously.

“Watch my tea.”

“Sorry.”

She chatters away, wanting to know what I’m drinking, what I’m reading; can she taste my tea; why am I down here.  Looking for some quiet time, I say.  Me too then, she says.   While we snuggle, I listen, waiting for what I know is coming next.  Sure enough, more footsteps now cross my ceiling, heading for the basement stairs.  Seconds later Max, half past 16 and ostensibly beyond caring about my whereabouts, walks in.

“Here you are.  What are you doing?”

“Having quiet time,” says Mikaela.

“Cool.”  Max joins us on the bed and starts talking as fast as only a teenager can, telling me about school, activities and friends in a verbal tsunami of information.

I try to sip my tea as I listen, which is difficult now that there are three on the bed and the mattress is not quite still.  I am trying to get as much of it down as I can before Act III commences.  Then another head appears in my doorway, and quiet time is officially over.

“Hey, why’s everyone down here but me?” says Meredith, 15 and brimming with middle child ostracization issues.  She climbs up on the bed, complaining loudly that there is no room for her, while her siblings protest that they were there first. They push and prod each other, fighting for territory.

“Hey Mom, can we look at our baby box?”

“Ya!  Baby box!”

I put aside my tea, now cold, and pull out the box I have with all my keepsakes of their respective babyhoods.  Birth announcements, ultrasound pictures and first birthday cake candles; Mikaela’s Spiderman pajamas, Meredith’s first shoes.  There are several pacifiers, or “nukkies” as we call them, and there is spirited discussion over which ones belong to which kid.

The four of us sit on the bed, sifting through memories, my quiet time forsaken for this precious time with my babies.  I don’t mind; all too soon every day will be quiet time.  We go through the entire box while I tell them yet again the stories of their births.  Eventually, there is a fourth, heavier tread on the stairs and ten seconds later my husband appears in the doorway.

“There you are!  I was looking for you.”

Raindrops on roses

I told my wife I loved her on our wedding day.  If anything changes, I’ll let her know.  ~ Unknown

I have always secretly envied men.  They seem to have such a worry-free approach to life compared to most women.  When I was a teenager it seemed to me that guys had more fun; guys got more freedom; guys got the really cool jobs.  Guys could also be more irresponsible, although we are taught that is a bad thing.  Women seem born to worry and manage and care for others, while men seem born to have fun, get dirty and blow shit up.

Last week I saw a man pushing his toddler-aged daughter in a stroller.  It was raining lightly and he was pushing his little girl in circles, dancing with the stroller in the rain.  The child had both arms and legs outstretched, wiggling her fingers and toes as the raindrops splashed on her.  Her face turned up to the sky, eyes shining, she giggled and squealed as he spun her around.   Everyone he passed was smiling at them.

How would this scene have played out had the child been with her mother?  It’s a safe bet that the stroller would have been covered with a plastic rain shield, the child’s bare legs carefully wrapped in a blanket for warmth, and the mother holding an umbrella over both of them as she hurried to get her child to shelter.  Careful, prudent, admirably health-and-safety conscious.  But fun?  No.

All aspects of parenting are important, and like everything else, women and men bring different strengths to the job.  Children need to learn responsibility, but they also need to learn to enjoy life.  Sure, women can have fun, but it’s harder for mothers to have the carefree abandon of fathers.  We are the protective mother bear, teaching and guarding our cubs 24/7, single-minded in our purpose – often to our own detriment.  Men are the lions snoozing in the sun or blinking lazily at the horizon, getting up only when the Mrs. brings back a kill (which he gets first dibs on even though he did none of the work involved in landing that damn gazelle), prodded to action only when his family is faced with danger.

I have no special memory of having fun with my mother, just the two of us.  I remember haircuts, trying on school clothes, parent teacher meetings, doctor and dentist appointments…the humdrum routine of everyday family life.  By contrast, I can remember my dad playing with me in the pool, taking me for walks on the beach and building sand castles on holidays, catching sunfish under the bridge at the Wye River, playing piano, taking me to the park, and watching Laurel and Hardy on Sunday mornings.  I have only a few memories of my mother really letting go and having fun, but on none of these occasion was she exactly having fun with me – I just happened to be there.  The rest of the time she was working; at her job, running the house, or caring for me.

A man always seems ready for a good time.  He doesn’t care if the house is clean when he has his buddies over for beer and football.  He will not pause to consider the piles of laundry that need washing if he has a chance to go fishing.  Women seem forever at the mercy of their own perfectionist micro-managing natures.  They can’t just sit and have a drink with their friends unless someone is watching their kids, their work is done, and nobody needs them.  Women are born to worry; men don’t even think there’s something to worry about.  When my husband is out with his buddies he’s not looking at his watch, or wondering if he should get home in case he’s needed.  A woman out with her friends would be texting her husband asking if the kids were in bed yet and if he’s remembered to take tomorrow night’s roast out of the freezer.

This female tendency to over-think everything is particularly prevalent in relationships.  Women are constantly agonizing over where the relationship is going, what his feelings are, what he wants, what do his actions mean.  Men have no idea what we’re talking about.

Men can spend an enormous amount of time doing absolutely nothing, which is mind boggling to a sex with a never-ending to-do list.  Men’s ability to sit silently and not think about anything is often the butt of jokes, but it is actually an amazing talent, one today’s mega-stressed, overworked woman could stand to learn.  Ever watched a group of men around a campfire?  They will sit and stare at the flames for hours, drinking beer, with hardly any conversation.  My husband has often sat in our backyard for five hours, alone, just sipping his beer and staring into the flames, usually with the radio on.  If you ask him what he’s thinking about, he says, “Nothing.”  I have tried on several occasions to join him as he likes me to sit with him, but I never last more than half an hour because I get bored. If I try, my mind is quietly reciting my to-do list in an ever-increasing anxious tone.  A woman’s brain is never quiet.

There is a societal shift occurring in today’s workplace.  Women are fast outpacing men in acquiring higher education and the careers and salaries that follow.  Men are falling behind, their old standby jobs in manufacturing and manual labour are disappearing, and they seem uncertain of their place in this changing world.  The question some are now asking is, do we even need men?

Anyone who thinks we don’t need men anymore is looking at the question through a very narrow lens.  Of course we still need men – we just don’t need them for what we used to need them for.  Women no longer have to get married, and we don’t need a man to support us.  But men bring more than money and security to a relationship.  Maybe this will be the era where men get the chance to be all that they can be.  To drop the macho façade and show their insecurities and sensitivities.  To be a stay-at-home parent without others making him feel like a failure or slacker, joking about “who wears the pants.”  Preconceived notions of what a man is supposed to do and be must be just as straight-jacketing for them as the preconceived notions of womanhood are for us.

I tried the stay-at-home mom thing; although I was emotionally fulfilled and loved looking after my babies, it was not intellectually stimulating enough.  I didn’t have enough to do and became bored and depressed.  My husband, however, is perfectly suited to be a stay-at-home dad.  He kicks butt at a ton of things that would benefit our family, like home repair, gardening, cleaning etc.  If he was home the house would be clean, dishes done, kids cared for, which would save me a ton of worry and stress and I would then be more interested in my job, instead of constantly worrying about what’s going on at home.  We would also save a bundle on food with his canning and preserving all the vegetables and fruit he grows, and he would still have time to run his business as a little side hobby to bring in some extra cash and indulge his own interests.  But he is driven to work, to provide, even though it keeps him running seven days a week and he is exhausted and getting run down.  His ego and the opinions of others won’t allow him to stop working at a “real job.”

That father dancing in the rain was imparting a valuable lesson to his child, as well as simply having fun.  We need dads, to show our children, and moms, that the world won’t end if your dishes aren’t done or your coffee table is dusty.  That it’s okay to make mistakes, to make a fool of yourself, to have a good time without feeling guilty.  That you can be silent for hours without something being wrong.

Steve has often played in the rain with the kids, and once I caught him showing my youngest how to work a hula hoop.  Some of our neighbors think he’s nuts – one guy, the self-appointed “street warden,” started a petition on us last year because Steve’s garden was “messy” (he planted sunflowers that grew ten feet high).  If fate ever separates us, it will be his fun and loving nature I’ll remember and miss, not his income or job title.  The next time he dances in the rain, I intend to stop whatever boring chore I’m doing and join him.

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Even the food bank is broke

Have you ever stolen toilet paper from a restaurant because you have no money to buy your own?  Prepared meals for a family of five for a week with no meat?  Eaten cereal for dinner so your kids can have the casserole you made because there isn’t enough for everyone?  This is the reality for many working families in our current debt-ridden society.  Poor used to mean people with little or no employment.  Today, we have families with two full time jobs, some making six figures, who still can’t make ends meet because we’re at the end of a 25 year financial con perpetrated by the financial and credit industries, the results of which are now playing out in families all over North America.

I was on unemployment for all of 2013, trying to cover my expenses with half the income I once had.  In May I reluctantly applied to the local food bank.  I was hopeful it would help me keep a decent amount of food in the house and lower our grocery budget while I went back to school for retraining, but it didn’t.  The experience was a real eye-opener.  Let me walk you through a typical food bank visit in my town.

It’s a Thursday morning, and people start lining up an hour before it opens. Most are women, far along enough in years that 40 is likely a dim memory.  There are a handful of men in the same age bracket, two 30-ish women with toddlers in strollers, one young man with a knapsack, and me.  Some chat with the receptionist as they await the signal that they may proceed to the cafeteria where free coffee and tea is waiting, preceding the hot meal that will be served after 10:00 a.m.  Two men peruse the rack of bread that is donated by a local bakery; the food bank hands out over 700 loaves of bread each week.

We are corralled in the front lobby like cattle.  There is nowhere to sit; the cafeteria with the tables and chairs is in the same room as the food bank “store” – on the other side of the locked door.  At 9:50 one woman asks the receptionist if she can use the washroom, which is also on the other side of the locked door.  The receptionist frowns and says, “Can you wait 10 minutes?”  She is oozing the self-importance only tinpot despots can project.

“I’ll try,” responds the woman, clearly in some physical discomfort.

Why she can’t be allowed in to use the washroom I can’t fathom.  Social Services talk a good game about helping people in need keep their dignity, but where is this philosophy in forcing someone to hold it because the “rules” say the door can’t be opened for another ten minutes?  There’s nothing dignified about a grown woman being forced to ask permission to use a toilet, and no excuse to refuse her request.

Permission to proceed is finally given and the rank and file move through the door and make a beeline for the coffee machine, stopping to take a number from the ticket dispenser on their way.  Although the food bank doesn’t open until 10:00 a.m., you have to grab your number immediately to avoid a three hour wait for your turn to shop.  I am number 57.  I pocket my ticket and turn to the nearest table.

“This is taken,” growls a middle-aged man, the sweep of his arm making it clear he is referring to the entire table and not just the chair I was about to sit on.  Territory conquered, his stare is aggressive, waiting for me to move on.  I do, and quickly.  A natural loner, I move to a seat at the back of the room at an empty table.  Meanwhile, the resident Napoleon covers his table and assorted chairs with his shopping bags and sits down, his glare daring any unauthorized persons to just try and join him.

I try to stay inconspicuous as I take in my surroundings.  I can’t remember the last time I was in a room full of people where not one of them was staring at a smartphone or other tablet-style device.  These people have nothing with them but empty shopping bags and their free coffee.  A volunteer moves through the room offering newspapers and magazines for people to read while they wait.  Few take them, preferring to chat with their friends.

If your application for food bank assistance is accepted, you are given a sheet of coupons in accordance with the size of your family.  As a family of five, I get five trips a month for $15.00 worth of food each trip.  The below photo is all I was able to get at this visit – try stretching that for seven days with three kids.

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The food bank can only be as generous as its donations, which were at an all-time low back then.  The industrial fridge has been empty all my visits but one.  On my first visit it contained 12 one-litre containers of buttermilk and a box of chicken wieners.  I haven’t seen any meat since.  There is a bowl of apples and oranges with a sign under it that says “1 item only.”  Even though I have three kids, I get one orange. This sign is also on the cereal, tuna, cookies and toiletries (when they actually have these items, and on half my visits they don’t).  When donations are down the staff must ration what they have to go around.  So at this time everyone was getting $15.00 of food a week, plus a few extra items indicated on their individual coupon sheet.  If donations increase, the weekly amount will also increase.

Have you ever donated a package of toilet paper to the food bank box at your local grocery store?  It isn’t always given intact to a family.  Right now, they are opened up and redistributed in packages of two, and we only get to take one.  Again, if they actually have some.  In seven visits I only saw toilet paper once.

A quick glance around the food bank store leaves you wondering how people who have no other resources survive. No meat.  No milk, cheese, butter or yogurt.  Even cereal is scarce.  It is 90% soup, canned vegetables (1 item only) and, the most heartbreaking shelf, baby food, which I have only seen once.  There are a few packages of pasta, but no spaghetti sauce.

The compassionate staff does their best to get you what they can.  They follow you around the store, helping you add up your selection and pointing out any little extras you can take voucher-free.

The room is getting more boisterous.  Napoleon now has three others at his table and they all chat as they sip their coffee.  Volunteers start serving the morning meal – soup, a rice dish and a slice of buttered bread.  There is a man at the next table talking loudly and continuously to no-one, waving his hands about to emphasize his point.  He is largely unintelligible although every now and then I catch clearer snippets, like “…the LEAFS!” and something that sounds like “That’s Polacks for ya.”  Yet I see him later in the food line and he is speaking quite lucidly to the person standing next to him.  Once back in his seat, he continues his monologue to a non-existent audience.  I speak to no-one, wait my turn, collect my meager foodstuffs and leave.  It is both depressing and humiliating to be there, and I have no desire to linger.

I haven’t attended the food bank since September.  As low as my income is sometimes, I can usually afford to buy $15.00 worth of groceries myself, and get something I actually want.  The food bank shelves are so empty it isn’t worth my time to sit there for an entire morning just to take home some stale bread, a couple packages of pasta and a piece of fruit.  But for many here, this is all they have.

I’m no economist, and I understand only the basics of how North America has ended up in this debt crisis from watching documentaries like “Maxed Out,” but if things are so bad that people have stopped donating to the local charities, a great many people are soon going to be in a lot of trouble.  The more stories I read of honest, hardworking people who have played the game only to lose their jobs, their homes, and the means to raise their children, I find myself wondering what life is going to be like when my kids are ready to begin their adult lives.  What kind of future do my daughters have to look forward to?  I’m not sure I want to know.

Mommy Magnetism

A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie. ~ Tenneva Jordan

I remember learning about magnets in school, but only understand on an intuitive level how they work.  Metal attracts to metal, and it has something to do with poles and fields (no-one ever accused me of being scientifically-minded).  Now that I am a mother, I have discovered another magnetic effect, an attraction not between metals but between organic materials, manifesting itself on a daily basis in my house.

My kids are magnetically attracted to me.  It’s the only explanation for why I can’t get  more than four feet away from them before I find them trailing behind me.  The trigger for this effect is any attempt on my part for a few minutes of alone time.  I can go unnoticed by them for hours when they are busy with their own activities, a comforting presence in their peripheral vision, but leave the room and all three kids gradually become aware that something in their universe is amiss. One child will eventually start a search.  From my basement bedroom, where I’ve gone with my tea to escape the atmospheric onslaught of music, video games, movies and sibling arguments, I can hear the process unfold:

“Mom?  Mom… (footsteps)… where’s Mom?” 

“I don’t know.”  

Footsteps down the hall.  “Where’s Mom?” 

“I don’t know.  Get out of my room!” 

Door slams, followed by more footsteps to the living room, the kitchen, and the bathroom; then they head to the top of the basement steps. 

“MOM?  YOU DOWN THERE??”  I don’t answer; it’s not really necessary.  I sip my tea, awaiting the inevitable.  I’ve been down here less than ten minutes.

The footsteps now come down the stairs.  There is a pause, and then my ten year old daughter, Mikaela, appears in my doorway.  A huge smile, tinged with relief, spreads across her face.

“Hi Mommy!”  She comes in and throws herself on my bed.  “Me want cuddle with Mommy,” she says, clambering over the mattress to snuggle under my arm.  My drink sloshes precariously.

“Watch my tea.”

“Sorry.”

She chatters away, wanting to know what I’m drinking, what I’m reading; can she taste my tea; why am I down here.  Looking for some quiet time, I say.  Me too then, she says.   While we snuggle, I listen, waiting for what I know is coming next.  Sure enough, more footsteps now cross my ceiling, heading for the basement stairs.  Seconds later Madeline, half past 16 and ostensibly beyond caring about her mother’s whereabouts, walks in.

“Here you are.  What are you doing?”

“Having quiet time,” says Mikaela.

“Cool.”  Madeline joins us on the bed and starts talking as fast as only a teenage girl can, telling me about her day, her classes and her friends in a verbal tsunami of information.

I try to sip my tea as I listen, which is difficult now that there are three on the bed and the mattress is not quite still.  I am trying to get as much of it down as I can before Act III commences.  Then another head appears in my doorway, and quiet time is officially over.

“Hey, why’s everyone down here but me?” says Meredith, 15 and brimming with middle child ostracization issues.  She climbs up on the bed, complaining loudly that there is no room for her, while her sisters protest that they were there first. They push and prod each other, fighting for territory.

“Hey Mom, can we look at our baby box?”

“Ya!  Baby box!”

I put aside my tea, now cold, and pull out the box I have with all my keepsakes of their respective babyhoods.  Birth announcements, ultrasound pictures and first birthday cake candles; Mikaela’s Spiderman pajamas, Meredith’s first shoes.  There are several pacifiers, or “nukkies” as we call them, and there is spirited discussion over which ones belong to which kid.

The four of us sit on the bed, sifting through memories, my quiet time forsaken for this precious time with my girls.  I don’t mind; all too soon every day will be quiet time.  We go through the entire box while I tell them yet again the stories of their births.  Eventually, there is a fourth, heavier tread on the stairs and ten seconds later my husband appears in the doorway.

“There you are!  I was looking for you.”

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