Month eighteen — Henry

Dear Henry,

I thought it might be nice for you to have a record of who you were at 18 months old. Or rather, I thought it might be nice for me to have a record so that I can remind you someday of why you need to be sweet to your tired mother.

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Henry, you find all of the trouble. You climb onto counters to steal your sister’s pencils and crayons and then dash toward our white office furniture. If I forget to close the laptop, you bang mercilessly on the keyboard. If I forget to put up the dog’s food and water dishes, you walk to them, pause to catch my eye, and then plunge your hands into them to splash and fling kibble as I run toward you shouting “No, Henry, no.” Dad says that you probably think your name is “No Henry.”

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The other day, I sat down to read an email. I registered that things were too quiet and turned around to find you eating a lemon rind that you had pulled from the garbage. I will leave out the part about how you licked a discarded yogurt lid before starting in on the lemon.

The worst part is that I can’t be mad at you for this. You are so good-natured. You contentedly putter around the house by yourself, pushing a little play stroller or dumping out bins of blocks and toys. As long as you are allowed to move, you are happy. And I can even get you to sit for a while if I read you a book. You love to listen to the same stories over and over — “Go, Dog, Do,” “Bear Snores On,” and “Little Blue Truck.” When I try to read you a new book, you slam it closed.

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You are collecting words, and they are an indicator of your interests. Socks, shoes, outside, dog, food, all done. A few weeks ago, you learned to say “sis.” Now you eagerly use it when we pick up Eleanor from school, and that moment is all the reward I need for the years I spent waiting for you.

When your dad and I decided to have a family, we spent a lot of time discussing how to raise successful kids. We dreamed of raising a doctor, an entrepreneur, a leader of some sort. Now, all I want is for you and your sister to be kind and try hard. If you are generous to others, and if you are the best teacher or chef or stay-at-home parent that you can be, that is enough. Having you here is my greatest gift. Your life is your own to use well.

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Love,
Mom

Career tweaking

Today is the first day since December that I haven’t had paid work to do. I have looked forward to this week for a long time. I’ve run a few errands this morning, started some laundry, and now my brain is cranking uselessly, trying to figure out what I will do next. Maybe the cranking isn’t useless. Boredom boosts creativity, apparently.

I feel like a hodge-podge copywriter/editor/journalist. I attended a networking event a few weeks ago and said to another journalist there “I’m a journalist, too. Sometimes.” Way to sell it!

I’ve increasingly been calling myself a writer when what I want is to be a journalist. I feel as though I’m not supposed to want that because the field is shrinking and so many of my friends have left for different careers. I prattled on to Greg the other day about how I wish I were writing for magazines, about how jealous I am when friends land a good journalism gig, about how I was thinking of seeking out a mentor to guide me on this freelance path. When I quieted myself after 10 minutes of chatter, he said nothing.

“Aren’t you going to say anything about all of this?” I asked.

“I already know all of this,” he said.

He does. Because this is what I do. I get mad at journalism and leave it. And then I return to it.

When I become too sad about the state of journalism, I read Longreads. People are still writing great stories. Is a freelance journalism career impossible? Or is it impossible only because I have told myself so? I can change my label from “freelance writer” to “freelance journalist” and hope that my subtle request is somehow answered.

I spend most of my time bumping about a quiet, suburban house. I am severely lacking in groundbreaking ideas. My lifestyle is much better suited to writing a PTA newsletter than a piece for Discover or National Geographic. I would much prefer to do the latter.

Why aren’t kids outside?

I saw a checklist a few weeks ago that ran through things a first grader was expected to be able to do — in 1979. Everything on the list was reasonable. Everything on the list was reasonable if you would let your first grader walk four blocks to a friend’s house by herself. I don’t know any parents who would.

I see a ton of chatter on social media about this. Both sides. What is wrong with today’s parents that we constantly hover over our children and barely let them outside to play? Also, given all of the child predators and kidnappers shown on the news, what crazy parent would let her children outside unattended?

I’ve probably spent far too much time thinking about this and have a few observations. First, fences are a problem. When I was a kid, we ran from backyard to backyard without a parent in sight, and there was no worry about us being hit by cars. Now, almost all yards are fenced, which means kids don’t have a large area to run free. Also, kids can’t see over the six-foot fences to know whether anyone else is outside.

My parents let me run around the neighborhood unsupervised from age six or seven onward. So did everybody else’s parents. If one of us got hurt, another ran home. And worries about strangers were minimized because we were together. I’d feel a lot better about letting Eleanor play outside on her own if she had other kids with her.

Also, we should all quit watching television news (perhaps with the exception of PBS). It’s sensational and plays up random crimes that are extremely rare. The crime rate has been declining for decades. I hear parents say that there are fewer kidnappings now because children are supervised. It’s working, right? But there are also fewer robberies and fewer murders, and I doubt that is because of helicopter parents. Yes, there are still dangerous neighborhoods, but most of us fussing over our kids in this manner do not live in those neighborhoods.

We’re all keeping our kids close because it gives us a sense of control. We can prevent bad things from happening if we are careful enough, correct? Except tragedy is often random. I know so well.

Better safe than sorry, we say. We’re discounting all of the things that kids are missing out on. It’s not just the physical activity. I want my children to learn self-control, courage, assertiveness, and empathy. I want them to be able to follow their curiosity. All of those lessons could be learned more effectively with a group of peers than a hovering parent. And perhaps I am naive, but I want my children to walk boldly into the world, not fearfully, to understand that most people are good. How can I spend all of their formative years telling them that they are incapable and then suddenly expect them to feel capable?

So we are taking baby steps, a solo trip to our mailbox a half-block away or to the nearby house of a friend. Eleanor is still tentative, and I tell her “You’re ready.” And every time she returns from the mailbox, she is ebullient. She is ready.

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