Life Lessons from the Back Seat of the Car

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A year or so ago I was chatting with a man at a party. He was a friend of my brother and we were talking about our kids, as parents do. He mentioned that his oldest was now 17 and driving, and I commented how helpful that must be: the kid could now drive his sister to activities and himself from A to B. The man agreed but then he sighed. “I miss the days when he was younger and I spent so much time driving him around. Some of the best conversations we ever had were when he was in the back seat of my car.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation because he’s right: many of the most profound – and often entirely unexpected and unplanned – conversations I’ve had with my kids have happened in my car.

Me at the wheel. Him or her in the backseat.

What is it about this set up? Is it the comfort of him not having to make eye contact? Is it because just sitting there gazing out the window enables her to freely process thoughts and, as a natural consequence, the questions come tumbling out?

More often than not, especially after picking one of them up after school or an activity, I drive silently – the quietness hopefully inviting an opening from which an honest thought, question or idea will inevitably jump out.

Sometimes, I’ll throw out a conversation starter, a seemingly benign question whose goal is to stimulate a back and forth. Sometimes it works, often it falls on grumpy ears.

If I have something on my mind, something going on the world, I use the drive as a chance to break the topic apart and make more meaningful for a younger mind. Or we hear something on the radio and it prompts a conversation.

And then there are the questions that I’m simply not prepared for but still have to respond to, seize the opportunity. Like when my daughter, aged maybe 8 or 9, asked me what sex felt like.

This morning, we talked about Puerto Rico and what we can do to help. We discussed how lucky and fortunate we are, and that it’s our duty to help. Because we’d like to think that, if it was us in a similar situation, others would willingly come to our aid. We reviewed the phrase “there but for the grace for God go I” and, without religious connotations, talked about the random nature of good and ill-fortune.

Big topics. Profound topics, I feel like we’ve covered them all in varying degrees – especially over the last 3-4 years. From how to handle a kid that’s annoying you at school, racism and equality, kindness and friendship, rape and consent, how this country managed to vote Donald Trump into office, sexting, old age and death, suicidal thoughts, what cancer is, climate change and natural disasters, to career anxiety (“what if I don’t ever get a job?”), alcohol, drugs, democratic vs authoritarian regimes and on and on. And there’s surely more to cover.

Much as I may moan about the never-ending schlepping of kids from here to there and back again, I realize now that inside my car is where the some of the most profound and valuable moments of parenting often happen.

And I, too, shall miss those conversation, when my kids are old enough to drive themselves.

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A Working Mom’s Evolution: The Tween Chapter

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A little more than two years ago, I read a blog post by Lindsay Mead which stayed with me. Called “Parenting a tween: an exercise in presence,” Mead gently wrote about the need to simply be there for your kids “often silently, often without acknowledgement” – especially during the middle school years.

This post planted the seed for what is, this week, the next phase of my life as a working Mom – working part-time. It’s something my husband and I had been planning for – potentially for 2018 – but which has arrived on our doorstep a little earlier than expected.

If my 12-year old could drive, I could continue work full-time.

The tween after-school conundrum is a mix of this: the kids are technically old enough to be home alone after school without setting the house or the dog on fire or maiming each other. But then there are the activities to which they need schlepping. And homework that needs supervising or odds are it wouldn’t get done. Basically, they need a grown-up in the house and ideally, someone qualified to drive.

Trade-offs in the search for work/life balance

Everyone I’ve told about this choice is excited for me. I think I’m excited for me too but truth is, I’m not sure. There are lots of trade-offs involved that are making me feel temporarily nervous about this transition.

On the plus side, I’m thrilled to get quality time with my kids during these critical years, less work-induced “how do I do it all?” stress, plus time/space to run some errands so they don’t eat into the weekend. Also not sitting on my arse at a desk all day is going to be great for my whole bod.

On the negative side: the obvious, reduced income. Also the handing over of some of the most stimulating parts of my work (being part of a management team, having operational responsibilities and managing/mentoring staff.) I worry I will miss the intellectual challenges these have afforded me till now.

Here’s the other thing. Learning how to “work less” is going to be a journey too, especially since I work in the always-on, news/social fueled PR environment that operates a mile a minute. It’s not just something you can switch off and on easily. Particularly since my brain is engineered in a parallel way – it’s an all-in beast that’s constantly flowing with ideas and to do lists, day and night.

Another concern: letting people down. For this to be successful, I need to be sure that my schedule changes inflict zero impact on my clients and teams.

Relief for the dual working parent struggle

I don’t know how we working parents do it, I seriously don’t. The thing I have HATED MOST ever since I went back to work when my youngest was an infant was the relentless tension over the schedule. The stressful machinations of figuring whose job or meeting was more important than the other’s when a child was sick or on one of the many, inexplicable early release days from school. Never mind doctors appointments, teacher conferences, requests to chaperone field trips, help in the classroom and so on. It has always felt like the whole system is architected to be anti-working parents.

Preschool, elementary school after care programs, nannies, babysitters cost a fortune. Not all of us have families around to help out in a pinch. If you are lucky (like me) you have an amazing network of other parents who can help if needed. But it pains you to always be the one asking for assistance driving your kid to this or that after-school activity.

But while I’m giving up income and some mental stimulation, what I’m gaining is multitudes of blessed relief from the constant tension of dual working parenting. No longer will my husband have to worry about cutting short his meetings out of state to get back in time to pick up a kid – I can carry this load now. And I’m hoping I can repay the kindness of my village too and provide relief to many of those folks who have so generously helped me.

The real winners will be my kids

Back to Lindsay’s post. These tween years are challenging. The kids might be independent but they are – at least to me – at their most vulnerable and susceptible. Raging hormones can color every situation, heightening the opportunity for drama, frustrations and sheer stupidity.

Being more present for my tweens during these years will, I’m hoping, provide a foundation of comfort and assurance. While they might not listen to me, I’ll listen to them more than I’ve been able to till now. I’ll learn more about their passing thoughts, their circles of friends, what they’re excited or fearful on. I’ll be there for the small everyday conversations but also for the big ones – whether they happen in the car, at the kitchen table or at bedtime.

And by watching me navigate this journey (they know how much I love my work), they’ll maybe come to understand and respect the lesson of finding value in both work and your personal life.

To me, this is worth it all.

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