Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Honesty and "God's Work"

I do not believe in baby talk.  I also do not believe in not using big words because my children won't understand them.  I have always talked to my children like they are people, and I do my best to answer their questions honestly while also considering their emotional and cognitive levels.  These are some of the reasons it took me a few tries to figure out how to answer the "how are babies made?" questions when my kids asked.  The tried and true answer of "when a mommy and daddy love each other very much..." doesn't cut it anymore.  It's not honest, and I don't ever want my children to judge themselves or someone else because they don't quite fit that standard reply.  It does take a man and a woman to make a baby, but families come in all shapes and sizes, and babies enter those families in many different ways.

These are just some of the questions I struggle to answer because I want to be honest with my children.  I want them to feel comfortable asking me about difficult topics, and I want them to know I will do my best to tell them the truth.  They deserve to understand the world they live in and to work to make it a better place.

In the last few days I have seen parents struggle with whether to tell their young children about the school shootings.  I note their fears:  the kids are too young; the parents don't want to take away their innocence; the kids might be afraid to go to school.  All of these fears are valid, but I wonder about the children in Connecticut and the parents who did not have a choice in these matters.  Do I think that our young children should be watching TV and the coverage of the shootings?  Absolutely not.  Do I think they should know that it happened?  Yes, in an age appropriate way.

We talked to our children Sunday night about a "tragedy" (we defined the word for them) that had happened in a different state.  We told them that children died, though we did not tell them that it happened at school.  They had questions.  We answered them honestly, yet appropriately, and then we decided to add these families to our prayers.   The conversation shifted easily, and later we asked them to tell us about fire drills at their school.  They excitedly explained them, as well as the "lockdown" drills, which they detailed as a "high" or "low" lockdown.  My daughter asked, "what if there is a real fire at school?"  To which I responded, "If anything like a real fire or emergency happens at school, Daddy and I will come to get you as soon as we can."

We had this conversation for a couple of reasons.  First, our school district sent a message to parents suggesting ways we could discuss the event with our children.  We knew that other children, particularly older children, would know what had happened, and we didn't want our kids to be confused.  We wanted them to know that something happened away from them.  We also wanted them to feel comfortable talking about it with us if they did hear something that confused them.  And finally, I felt they had a right to know.  Yes, they are children, but they are smarter and stronger than we give them credit for.  They have compassion for others, and they know how to send love through prayer.

I have seen parents struggling with the fact that other children have been talking about the shootings at school and on the bus.  "Why don't their parents tell them not to talk about it?" some have asked.  But they should talk about it.  They should process it, just as adults have been processing it with each other.  We called our loved ones.  We texted our friends.  We watched with unknown others.  Kids deserve the same chance to process, and I know that they need to, that they will, and that somewhere in that mix, my children will hear them.  It was not a difficult decision for me to make to tell my children that something bad had happened. I did not struggle.

However, in these last few days I have been struggling with other dialogue about the tragedy.  Some responses paint the teachers in Connecticut as heroes, which they certainly were (and are).  What frustrates me is that recent public discourse about education and teachers has made it seem unlikely that teachers could possibly be heroes.  Of course, these women were heroes.  It's what teachers do - love, protect, and nurture kids.  Somehow tied to, yet apart from, this discussion of heroes are statements that  indicate "God" is absent from schools.  Though Mike Huckabee made headlines with his comments, the sentiment is echoed by many.  I cannot articulate any better my feelings on this subject than did Kimberly Burkett, who posted an open letter to Mike Huckabee.  Teachers are heroes, and the values at the core of every religion, which center on compassion and love, are present in the work that they do.  Every day.

Teachers are heroes, and children are people.  They should be treated fairly.  They should be protected.  They should be respected, and they should be loved.  Above all, they should be trusted to do "God's work" because they are some of the most capable ones at getting it done.

My feelings here in no way overshadow the sorrow I feel for the people of Newtown.  My heart broke again when I learned that Noah Pozner, the youngest victim, was a twin.  His sister Arielle survived.  Though I grieve for all of the families who lost loved ones, I feel deeply for Noah's parents and his sister.  To lose a child is unthinkable.  To help a twin deal with the loss of her brother is double heartbreaking.  Arielle will feel this loss like no one else can.  Twin moms around the country are hoping to honor Noah by planting a tree, and perhaps my kids and I will plant a tree of our own to honor all of the heroes and children in Newtown and in our lives.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Impossible Grief

It is impossible not to see myself in the tragedy. I remember clearly the day of the Columbine shootings. I learned of it while I was on the treadmill at the gym after school. Though I hate to run, I stayed on the machine an extra 20 minutes, transfixed, watching the scene unfold on the overhead TV. I rushed home to sit on the couch and stare at the news. I didn't grade papers. I didn't plan lessons. I could not think, unable to comprehend what had happened. I saw myself, a teacher, in that tragedy, and I grieved. What if that happened at my school? What if a gunman came into my classroom? What if?

Today started according to plan. I put the kids on the bus. I cleaned my office, which was in desperate need of a paper sweep and swiffer dust. I met my colleagues in a Google Hangout where we outlined a book. I created a budget for a grant application. And then, just as I was turning to the proposal narrative, I clicked the Facebook tab. One friend had commented about the school shooting. Just below that post another friend said she had cried as she read the story. No one else had commented. So I googled it - and I was done for the day.

My work files hung open on my computer as I took in the story, watched lived coverage, and eventually turned on the TV. As the story unfolded, it hit closer to home. Connecticut. Small, suburban town. Perceptively safe community. Kindergarten class.

It was not my grief to feel, but it was impossible not to see myself, a parent, in it. I have two children in the same kindergarten class. What if that had been my town? What if I couldn't find them at the firehouse? What if...

It was not my grief to feel, but it was impossible not to feel it.

There is so much I could say about the media's coverage of this event. A young man was accused publicly when he had nothing to do with the event. The story changed significantly from hour to hour. Reporters raced to file "facts" yet police refused to confirm. So the news teams speculated...who, what, when, and even where. And we watched. I watched. Unable to comprehend, and swimming in "what if."

Perhaps we can learn something, something more than school security or gun control, by examining the coverage of the aftermath. Perhaps in that mess lies the real problem. Perhaps change begins there.

It is not our grief to feel, but we feel it.

NJ Strong, along with other Sandy relief teams, has opened their hearts to Connecticut. If you would like to donate, please follow this link.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Shoebox Project

I have always believed that education is a three-way street that includes teacher, child, and parent.  I have also believed that parents play a supportive role in the classroom and a dominant role outside the walls of school.  It is my job to ask questions about my child, the work he or she is doing, and the expectations of the teacher.  It is my job to help my child meet those expectations. It is my job to advocate for my child if need be.  But it is not my job to micromanage the classroom.  That responsibility is mine in the outside world, and the classroom I entrust to the teacher.

However, that doesn't mean that teachers and parents cannot work together to accomplish learning.  This past week I saw a collaboration of school, home, and community come together, and together, we made a difference in the lives of others.

The Shoebox Project started a little over a month ago, the week before Super Sandy hit, when I cleaned out my children's closets and discovered 17 empty shoe boxes.  Before you say, "wow," let me share a few facts:

  • Children under five grow quickly.  They typically outgrow shoes in 3-5 months.
  • If they have not outgrown sneakers in 3-5 months, preschool boys have destroyed them and need a new pair.
  • If they have not outgrown their "girly" shoes in 3-5 months, preschool girls have destroyed the toes and need a new pair.
  • I have 5 year old twins.
Taking these facts together, along with my propensity to store shoe boxes rather than throwing them away, it should not be surprising that I had accumulated 17 empty boxes.  Piled high in my hallway, the boxes longed for a home, someone who could put them to use.  (Remember, I have a hard time throwing shoe boxes in the garbage. )  I asked all of the elementary school teachers that I knew if they could use them.  I posted a plea to my Facebook friends to take them.  No one accepted.

Then the storm came, and I forgot about the boxes, which had become part of the hallway decor, until my husband, in a state of aggravation that was probably caused by frustration in the wake of Sandy, asked whether we could recycle the boxes.  Not wanting to agree that it was time to destroy these perfect, cardboard storage devices, I thought one more time about a good use for them.

My children and I have donated parade and Halloween candy to Operation Shoebox, an organization that supports overseas troops by trying to raise morale and to let them know that people are thinking of them, caring about them.  In fact, the last shipment I sent to Operation Shoebox was encased in an old shoe box that I found in my closet!

Operation Shoebox seemed the perfect use for the boxes in my hall, but this time, I wanted to help children.  I thought of all of those displaced by the storm, the children who had lost all of their belongings and their families who might not be able to give them a Christmas this year, and I wondered if we could do our own Operation Shoebox to build their morale.  By the time the idea formed, I had purchased new sneakers for my kids and dress shoes for my son.  My pile of boxes was up to 20, just one shy of the number of children in my kids' Kindergarten class.  I knew immediately I wanted to bring their teacher into the project, and she was excited to become involved.

Though I knew I could garner donations for the boxes and that the children would take care of the packaging and notes that would be included, I needed an outlet for delivery.  My former student, spurred  by her own struggle to find how one individual could help in the aftermath of Sandy, had started a non-profit organization, NJ Strong, to coordinate volunteer efforts.  She enthusiastically took our project and matched us with a school district that has over 100 displaced families.  Last week, the children in my kids' class created the boxes. Yesterday, NJ Strong delivered 25 wrapped shoe boxes to kindergartners and first graders in those families. (Reports from Asbury Park Press and Atlantic City Press.)

My children's teacher was able to make this project a teachable moment - the class learned the word empathy, a very hard concept to teach to 5-year-olds. The children who received the boxes found a small rainbow after the storm, and they know that someone else is thinking of them, that someone else cares.  The Shoebox Project shows what education can be when community, schools, and parents collaborate in the name of service.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

No Reason to Cry

I have no reason to cry. My home is unscathed, the damage to my property minimal, and my family and friends are doing fine. I have no reason to cry, yet I broke down on the train platform yesterday, standing among a thousand New Jerseyans as we tried to get to work, and again this morning in front of my children as they colored quietly in the cold.

I am heavy. There is sadness for my state, for the people who have lost so much. There is frustration at, with, and for the people who are still without power. There is compassion for the utility workers and government officials who, I truly believe, are doing the best they can in an impossible situation - and who are being criticized vehemently by those without power.

There are all these emotions bottled up, yet it was work that tipped me twice in the last 24 hrs. Yesterday, the commute seemed insurmountable. Today, a glitch in my university's plan for Gmail migration has made my life increasingly complicated. I am trying to take each challenge in stride. And it is making me feel heavy.

One of my students sent an apologetic email, saying she might not be prepared for class tomorrow. She has had only a few hours of Internet access to catch up on a week's worth of work. It's impossible to do it all in so little time, she said. I know how she feels. So much of what we do in our professional lives depends on access. I have been working for some time to fight the "digital divide." I am now on the other side of that divide, and it's making me heavy. I am starting to truly understand the ramifications of living without the tools of digital literacy, digital citizenship, digital life.

I know that some readers have been concerned by my posts. I want to assure everyone that I am ok. Writing is therapy in some ways, and I know that others in my community have expressed that my sharing has helped them too. So I'm continuing to write and share, not to ask for sympathy, but to reaffirm for myself and my neighbors that we really don't have a reason to cry. But it's ok if we do. I know we are all a little heavy right now.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Just an Inconvenience

Two days after the storm someone who does not live in NYC or NJ suggested to me that I (and others) were only inconvenienced by Sandy, that our current struggles did not compare to fighting terminal illness or other world-ending catastrophes. I have been feeling much the same, that I am only inconvenienced and thankful for that, as I see my local area become more and more distressed about being cold, and dark...and inconvenienced.

I know that many of us are thankful that we are not among those who lost homes, towns, or loved ones. But I also want to validate that areas of NJ besides the shore are dealing with major consequences, and for some people it will be world altering.

My town did not flood. Very few homes were damaged during the storm. But high winds and trees did incredible damage. In a 3-mile stretch between my house and town, at least 12 poles need to be replaced before any hope of power can be restored. This power line feeds our grocery store and shopping center, which houses several small, local businesses. It probably won't be fixed for another 10-12 days.

Our inability to get groceries, gas, and other essentials, coupled with the angst of being cold, disconnected, and dark, has turned into public panic. I've even heard stories of guns at gas stations.

We need to drive farther to get food, which means we need more gas. The state has begun rationing gas, with 1970s-style alternate day, limited filling. So driving farther has become more difficult. For many, working has also become a problem. Many stores and restaurants in my town cannot open. The owners' livelihoods are at stake. For those who earn commission or hourly wages and cannot get to work because of power or gas shortages - their livelihoods are at stake.

I am thankful that my family and I made it through the storm with only inconveniences. We can drive 45 minutes to another state to buy gas, and we can find an open bank and grocery store on the way home. My kids will get back to school eventually, and it's ok if they don't have a spring break, or any break, or if they go to school till mid July (and all of these are possibilities). My husband (who works on commission) and I (who cannot take the train to the city) will fill up our tanks out-of-state and drive to our workplaces, both of which have power. We will be cold, and dark, and disconnected for up to 2 more weeks, but the power company will work nonstop until we are up and running. Our world is different, and not in a good way, but it did not end.

I know many in my state whose world has ended. I know many others for whom this situation will be life-altering. I'm worried about all of them and about the lasting consequences of this storm. But I also know that for me, personally, this is just an inconvenience.

For anyone who can, please donate your time or money to help those who are more than inconvenienced. The Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org) needs donations, and one of my former students has started a website to coordinate volunteers (http://www.njstrong.net/).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pioneer Life with Legos

I'm sitting in front of my fireplace, letting the flames warm me as I contemplate life at this moment. To say I have never experienced anything like this is not just a cliche. It doesn't even begin to explain. There is no gas to be purchased. There is no food to be bought. My neighborhood is riddled with downed trees, and there is only one way, an indirect route, to access my street without driving over downed wires. In times of crisis people are supposed to band together, but I haven't seen that community develop in NJ, perhaps in part because I have been isolated from the world. For two days we couldn't get info in, and now we are getting only snippets from Facebook, Twitter, and a few websites that will load, sporadically, on my phone.

This is the third extended power outage my neighbors and I have suffered in 14 months. Our community spirit is lost, in part I think, because this time it's so much worse.

I've been out of touch with work all week, unable to interact with my students or colleagues. A deadline is fast approaching, and I am unable to edit the document my coauthor and I have created. There is no place I can go to get access to the Internet; nothing is open; no one has access.

My university closed until Monday, as New York City fared as badly as we did. I am worried, however, that they will reopen, and I still will not be able to go to work. The trains aren't running. We don't have gas to drive anywhere. I cannot telecommute.

Amidst these worries are my prayers for those who have it so much worse. I know people who were rescued from Hoboken by the National Guard. I know people who lost houses at the shore. I know people who have abandoned their homes because it is too cold for their children. I know people who are facing major cleanup of their property. I am fortunate to worry only about how I will get to work on Monday.

My dad calls me "pioneer daughter," and we are indeed living a 21st century pioneer life right now. But my kids are playing happily behind me, building a luxury house out of Legos. At this point for them, luxury includes heat and running water, but I'm pretty sure we still have it better than the true pioneers.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Test Prep, Play, and an EduMom's Angst

I am afraid.  I am afraid of the day that my children bring home a worksheet with the words "Test Prep" on it.  I am afraid that my dual roles as parent and educator will battle, and I will end up making the wrong decision.  I am afraid that any decision I make in that instance will be wrong.

Today my friends, who live in another town, tackled their first kindergarten homework.  The homework focused on a Common Core Standard related to counting and numbers.  Atop the page were the words "Test Prep."  The kindergartners received this worksheet for homework on their 6th day of school.

I won't even go into the fact that a host of adults (me included) could not decipher the instructions for this worksheet. The fact that kindergartners who have not even experienced a week of school are subjected to test prep scares me.  This is the result of policies that have been supported by individuals who do not understand teaching and learning.  It is the result of educators being disrespected, silenced by those who think they know better.

My former student is a teaching in Chicago.  He, along with 90% of his colleagues, authorized a strike that has sent ripples throughout the education community and waves in the political media.  The district leaders cry that the teachers are hurting the students over issues of pay and benefits.  However, most teachers in the strike believe the fight is deeper than what they take home.  In the words of my former student, and now my colleague, "We are fighting for the ability to help your kids explore the world rather than bubble it in."   Chicago teachers are standing against excessive testing, incomplete evaluation systems, and an environment where the art of teaching, which includes attention to the individual difference of children, is not valued.

Last night on the train I listened to a podcast by Back Story called School Days: A History of Public Education. The American History Guys chronicled the origins of America's free and public education; they traced its development; and, perhaps most interestingly, they provided evidence that teachers (and schools) have served as scapegoats on more than one occasion throughout our past.  (For example, when Russia beat the US into space, schools became the primary target - we weren't preparing scientists and engineers who could compete globally.)

The podcast guys mentioned statistics about the low standing of US students on comparative international exams.  What they didn't say - and what few people explain - is that when variables related to poverty are controlled, the US scores at the top of the pack.  We actually know how to teach - and we have a lot of wonderful teachers who care about students.  Testing won't make kids smarter; over-testing will only serve to reduce teaching and learning to the test itself.  In some cases, it encourages cheating and lying, and these are certainly not values that we want our education system to promote.

I spend much of my professional time arguing that "teaching to the test" is not what teaching and learning is about.  I wrote an article called "Fear of Failure" because I understand that it is this fear that drives administrators and teachers to focus on the test.  After today, I realize that it is this fear that has increased my angst about being a parent of school aged children.  I know in my heart that a worksheet for "test prep" will not truly help my kids learn.  But I also understand why teachers are sending these kinds of tasks home for homework.

For the last week I have been encouraging my twins, who are in the same kindergarten class, to make new friends.  I ask each day who they play with.  Every day my son says, "We don't have time to play."  Each morning he has cried, "I don't want to go to school.  I can't do anything I want to do."  I have been listening, growing increasingly worried about his immediate dislike for school.  I was hoping to get to adolescence before the cries to stay home began.  I also was skeptical about his claim that they didn't have time to play during the 6 hours they spend in school.  However, last night one of my students, a kindergarten teacher, shared his reason for entering a doctoral program.  He wants to study "play" in kindergarten.  Many theories of learning support that play, especially in young children, is important in development - academic, social, and emotional.  His experience as a kindergarten teacher has led him to believe that the culture of high stakes testing has pushed more and more "academic" work into kindergarten, leaving less and less time for creative play.  As my student explained his research goals, I thought of my son's morning moan - that he didn't have time to do anything that he wanted to do.  Perhaps he is right.  And that scares me too.

When she saw my Twitter post about my friends' kindergartners and their test prep homework, my colleague, who fights the battle between educator and mom every day, asked me, "So are you attaching a 'dear teacher' letter in response?"  I  do not know what choice I will make when my children bring home a worksheet for "test prep."  I do not know what the right choice would be.  I do know that my profession matters and that the teachers in Chicago are leading a good fight - one that is standing up against a culture of high stakes testing, which, ultimately, has little to do with teaching and learning.  I can only hope that as time goes on, my kids find more time to play.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

32 Starts, and none like this

Each year my colleague announces that it is his 35th, 36th, 37th... opening of school.  He remembers back to his elementary days and recalls the excitement he felt each and every year since.  Like him, I also love going back to school.  The anticipation of the new year bubbles up inside me.

I love back to school shopping. I love the promise of new teachers and new students.  I love the challenge - and the potential - of a clean slate.  I love the possibility of greatness that each first day brings.

It is my 32nd "first day of school," but this one is special.

Tomorrow's the day.  Life will change.  Again.  For the last two years my husband and I have been developing a rhythm, a juggling act of preschool drop off and babysitter coverage.  Tomorrow the rhythm changes.

My kiddos are headed to kindergarten.  I am neither anxious nor excited.  I know the kids will love school.  I know they will be exhausted after 6.5 hours of intense social and academic time away from home.  I know they are a little nervous about what this new place, this new life, will mean for them.   I know that there will be good and bad, and  I am just waiting to catch the new rhythm.

As I do every year, I eagerly anticipated class assignments - this time, however, it was from the other side of the desk.  I quietly stalked the mailbox the day after the town sent the letters.  I quickly tore into them.  I immediately texted my friends to find out what they knew about the teacher.  I entered parent-land, and I learned quickly that class assignments mean a great deal to parents.  The local facebook discussion board lit up with comments like, "Suzi got Smith."  "Did anyone else get Allen?" "Johnny got Williams and Bethany got Jacobs."  

I was struck by the verb the parents used.  Their children "got" something - like a present, perhaps, or perhaps like a virus.  Conversations with friends behind the scenes confirmed what I probably always knew and never really considered while I was teaching high school.  Families hope for certain teachers.  Parents have perceptions of classrooms or of personalities or of standards - or of some thing that will make or break their children's year.    Teachers matter and parents care.  I see that from both sides of the desk now.

My balancing act will shift tomorrow as my children enter a public school classroom.  I have had 28 starts associated with public schools (the other 4 were college starts), but this is my first as a parent.  I wonder what the new rhythm will be.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Real Food Changes for My Family

My kids are heading to Kindergarten in a few weeks, and I have started not-quite-stressing over how to make sure that they eat well while they are away from the house.  My stress is caused by my finicky daughter who has a dairy sensitivity and the fact that the school just adopted a nut-free classroom policy.  I understand the concerns with nut allergies, but the nut-free environment has limited several of my dairy-free options (e.g., Almond milk yogurt).  The school website directed me to this "Safe Snack" list.  Six months ago I wouldn't have thought twice about buying many of the products on the list, sticking to the "healthier" options.  Today my worldview is different, and I question why our schools think it is okay to suggest such unhealthy snacks for our children.

The debate about food and health is one that I have come to understand only recently, after being hit with a brick about my own health.  I had followed my college friend's shift in nutrition and eating curiously via his Facebook posts and wondered why he and his wife turned their efforts to creating a green grass farm.  I thought I lived a healthy life, but my definition of eating well was limited to eating low calorie foods, staying away from junk foods, and balancing the "food groups" that I had learned as a child.

When I realized that I was not, in fact, healthy, I decided to learn more about nutrition, and I began working with Csilla from Shining Health.  Within a week I had changed my eating habits.  Within a month I had removed processed foods from my pantry.  Within two months I had participated in a cleanse and taken my daughter off of dairy.  In the last six months, my family has made major changes in our eating and our health. I'll share some of the most significant.

I Cook.
Being a mom with a full time job means that I balance work life with home life.  I have never liked to cook, and after long days at work, I was often too tired to cook.  Prepared foods were staples in our home, and aside from our fresh organic fruits and vegetables, I did not pay much attention to the ingredients in the items I bought from the store.  If it was easy, I tried it.  If my husband and kids liked it, I bought it again.  If we didn't have anything to cook, we ordered in.

We still eat out and order in, but I also cook regularly, and none of the foods are processed or prepared.  We don't even have Kraft Mac 'N Cheese in our pantry anymore!

I Plan Meals.
As part of the cooking commitment, I had to learn to plan meals.  Emeals.com has been incredibly helpful.  The clean eating menu comes with a grocery list, and I have easily been able to adapt the weekly plan to the needs of my family.  Just today I signed up for the lunch menu plan in hopes that I can plan and shop for the kids' lunchboxes at the same time I am thinking about our family dinners.

I Read about Real Food.
I found Emeals through the blog 100 Days of Real Food.  It's now one of my favorite blogs, and the author is a mom who writes about the challenge of raising kids with real food.  She posted her own "safe snack list," which she also convinced her kids' school to adopt.  In addition to this blog, I've branched out on Facebook, the blog sphere, and Pinterest to find others who are struggling (or have struggled) and allow their stories and recipes to influence my own.  My new favorite magazine is Clean Eating.

I Eat a Lot of Green Stuff.
I always knew vegetables were important, but Csilla helped me see that I didn't know nearly enough about veggies and that I wasn't eating nearly enough of them.  Now I know what kale is - and how it tastes and how to blanch it so it is sweeter.  I can tell the difference between chard and collard.  I buy organic spinach every time I go to the store.  I've even figured out how to get my daughter, who doesn't like anything green except grapes and peas, to eat it.  (We wrap it around fruit.)

I Buy Organic.
Before working with Csilla, I rarely bought organic food.  It was too expensive, and I didn't understand the health benefits.  Our family now eats grass fed or organic meat.  Period.  The warnings about hormones, which I kindly ignored when my acupuncturist told them to me year after year, have sunk in.  It's in my daughter's and my best interest to eat better meat, and it's good for my husband and son too.  Similarly, I buy organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible.  This commitment not only means spending more on grocery bills, but it also means driving farther to a store that stocks the meats and quality produce.  As I have been hearing more and more lately, it's better to put the money and effort into shopping now, rather than into doctor's visits in the future.

After Csilla took me on a tour of my local grocery store, I realized that I could shop in five small sections, rather than wandering the aisles as I used to do.  I shop more often, according to the needs of my meal plan, and with the exception of my meat budget, I find that I am not spending any more than I used to.  I buy less "junk" when I'm out of the other aisles.

I Don't Buy Milk.
During one conversation with Csilla, I learned that carbs make people tired.  I casually mentioned that perhaps my daughter's dark circles were because she is a "carb girl."  Csilla told me that dark circles are a sign of dairy sensitivity, and she recommended that I read Is This Your Child by Doris Rapp.  As I read about dairy allergies (different from lactose intolerance), I repeatedly checked off my daughter's symptoms. I removed dairy from our house for four days, and when I reintroduced it, within ten minutes, my daughter, who is normally sweet and easy going, had a meltdown.  Wondering if it was a fluke, we tried again... and again.  Each time we allowed her to drink a cup of milk, eat a bowl of ice cream, or eat a container of yogurt she became a different child.  So now we steer clear of dairy.  I've also switched to Almond and Coconut milk for the rest of the family.

I do not consider myself a hard core health nut.  My kids still eat "treats"; we continue to buy pizza at our favorite restaurant; we all eat french fries.  But I also don't consider my changes a "phase."  Before I worked with Csilla, I subscribed to the belief that "I ate this way as a kid, and I'm healthy enough."  I now realize that the food industry has changed - and that maybe I wasn't as healthy as I thought.  From the time they began eating solids, I tried to teach my kids to eat "healthy snacks" and to limit "treats."  However, my definitions of those two terms has changed.  "Goldfish" is no longer a healthy snack.  As I move forward, sending my kids to school for 7 hours per day, I will have to trust my 5-year-olds to start making their own healthy choices.  I intend to fill their lunch and snack boxes with delicious options that will make them want to eat real food.  Perhaps this is the biggest change of all.

Going Digital? (The Pitfall of a Paper Calendar)

On August 6 my husband burned my August calendar.  My family lives by my calendar - all kid activities and appointments are coordinated with my schedule.  Babysitter hours are set based on my availability.  Menus are planned according to the time I can spend in the kitchen.  Though I maintain an online calendar and shopping list through Cozi, which conveniently makes apps for my iPhone, as well as my husband's and babysitter's Blackberries, my paper calendar rules the roost.  So when I realized that August had been ripped out for the good of making S'mores (it was hectic and dark, so I'll give him a break), I had a moment or two of panic.  Luckily, I've been able to reconstruct the calendar... I think.

My colleagues and I have an ongoing debate about our calendars.  Half of us at the table keep paper calendars.  Half of us have moved to electronic, mobile calendars.  Though I am considered one of the "techies" among us, I have not made the switch.  I like the feel of the paper calendar, the purpose of writing in pen, the thrill of physically crossing items off the list, and the nostalgia of my youth.  I still use an academic planner (August to July, rather than January to December) like I did in high school.  However, I also like to be able to see my week at a glance and to read, in its entirety, everything written for that week.  My brain has been wired that way.  I am a digital immigrant, and my phone just doesn't cut it when I try to read and plan my life.

More important than the physical limitation of the technology is my (in)ability to manage my many roles in one virtual calendar.  I have separate Google accounts for my professional and personal lives.  Coordinating calendars across accounts requires more effort than my digital immigrant brain can handle - especially when I can manage that coordination beautifully on my paper calendar.  I need not log into two separate spaces.  I simply open my book, and I can read and write my life.

When I realized that my calendar had been rendered useless with four of the next twelve months serving as charcoal, I paused to consider my next step.  Would I join the other half of the table at work?  Would I push myself to adopt new technology?  Would I figure out how to combine my various roles in life through one online space? After all, it would be pretty difficult for my husband or kids to destroy a virtual calendar.

I've decided that coordinating mom and professor  is a routine that doesn't yet need changing.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Seeing What Needs to Be Done

I rarely change the roll of toilet paper. I leave the dregs hanging on the tube. I also leave dresser drawers and cabinet doors open. It's a flaw. My husband says I'm lazy. For some reason he doesn't equate these habits with his own inability to pick up a basket of laundry or pile of toys that are sitting at the bottom of the stairs waiting to go up. Or to wash the dishes in the sink. I know that he isn't lazy - he simply doesn't see it. Just like I know why I fail to change the roll of toilet paper. By the time I wash my hands in the sink across the room, I've forgotten it needs to be done. I'm five steps down my mental list of "what comes next."

This summer has not been relaxing.  Though I was supposed to take time away from work for myself and for my writing, my days are consumed by teaching and administrative duties.  Work and email from 48 students, most of whom I have not met in person, overwhelms my inbox.  I am a tech master, a mentor, and a guide to all of these students as they navigate online coursework, field experiences and related coursework, and residency projects.  Administratively, I have read 20+ applications on my summer "break," and I've participated in two task forces.  In addition, I'm still considering my syllabus for a new, co-taught, interdisciplinary course that starts in 6 weeks.  On top of this work, I've been writing, in small spurts, trying to get a draft or two finished for submission before my tenure package is due this fall.

Perhaps this is why I rolled my eyes when my hubby yelled at me the other day.  "Are you ever going to learn to change the toilet paper?"  I have a list for home as long as the list for work this summer.  It includes making the kids' 5-year check-up, taking them, having the doctor fill out the school paperwork, and getting it submitted to the school before September 1.  And this is just one item that needs to be done.  I'm happy to leave "changing toilet paper rolls" on my husband's list.  Because quite frankly, I don't know if I will ever remember to see it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

What makes an era?

I just dropped my kids at their preschool for the last time.  I didn't think that I would feel much emotion about their last day of camp; emotion had already seeped through my stoic resolve on the final day of school, which was last week. However, as I stood in the hallway this morning, realizing it was the last time I would see the cheerful birthday board, the last time I would say "go potty" to my kids before they went to their classroom, the last time I would juggle two backpacks, two lunchboxes, and a purse while I waited for their day to begin, my stomach pulled on my heart.  I felt like it was the end of an era.

I remember when I walked the halls of my high school for the last time, summer smells rushing though the corridors with locker debris littering the ground.  I was excited for the next step and at the same time sad for moving on.  The same feelings engulfed me on my college graduation day when my roommate and I hugged goodbye and closed the door on our apartment.  I felt it again when I left my first teaching job after 6 years.  That time I cried, alone in my classroom, wondering where the next step would take me.  Similarly, my husband and I reminisced together in our empty house, our first house, which we had loved for 7 years.  We grew so much in that place.

Eras are defined by time, but really, I think, they are about place.  The short time we have spent at the preschool does not compare to the growth we have experienced in the place.  I saw my babies grow into kids.  I watched as they learned about friendship and "doing school" and all the things that a preschool offers young children. I served as a parent in fellowship, a board member, a teacher, and a volunteer in that place. It was 2.5 years of snacks without peanuts, of "beating the line" at the exit in order to get to work on time, of juggling schedules with my hubby, and of programs full of song.  It was piles of artwork that hang on my office wall, numerous treat bags filled with kiddie junk, and hundreds of smiles from the children and their parents.

When I compare the preschool to the other places that have sparked these same emotions, the time I spent there is insignificant.  The place, however, will always be important.  As my kids climbed the steps to their classroom this morning, I reminded them it was time to start their last day at the school.  My son burst into the chorus of "I'm so excited," and I joined him.  I am excited.  And I'm also welling up with tears as I write.  It is the end of an era, and my dueling emotions remind me of the import of this moment.

Friday, June 1, 2012

More Than the Rainbow

Since graduating from college, I've learned to fake my way in the kitchen. When I have the right tools and the time, I even enjoy cooking. I do not, however, enjoy baking. It's too hard to fake it as a baker. The chemistry has to be precise, and I do not have the patience nor the knowledge to be a baker. This week, with my summer course starting today, I didn't really have the time either, but my kids wanted rainbow cupcakes for their "un"birthday at school. Since we attend a nut-free school, cupcakes need to be homemade, not from a box mix that could have been contaminated in a nut factory. Alas, the ready-made confetti mix was not an option, and yesterday, I got out my Kitchen Aid mixer and set to work.

When my son and daughter first asked for rainbow cupcakes, I imagined I would separate my homemade icing into several bowls, add food coloring, and color each cupcake with a different color. Put them together, they would make a rainbow. Then my friend shared with me a recipe for tie-dyed cupcakes. These cupcakes were over-the-top rainbows! The recipe explained how to make the cupcakes from a box mix. Being the over-achiever that I am, and temporarily forgetting that I have work commitments, I decided to adapt it to my "from scratch" recipes for cake and icing. I let the kids help with some of the mixing and the coloring, and by the end of the day, I had a container full of rainbows.

The batter is layered in 6 different colors, which the kids and I made yesterday morning before they headed to school. The icing, which we colored before dinner, is piped in three colors, and I didn't quite master the technique. Though I wouldn't feel comfortable sharing these with a group of adults, I'm sure 5-year-olds will find them aesthetically pleasing and utterly delicious. I learned quite a bit in making these rainbow cupcakes that would be useful if I ever made them a second time. But quite frankly, I cursed so many times in my head as I was making them that I think they may be on my "been there done that" list. I decided in the kitchen last night that these particular cupcakes should not be something a working mom tackles.

My mom tells my kids that she loves them "more than the sun, the moon, and the stars." They often play a game that replaces the celestial beings with other objects. My daughter laughingly told me recently, "I love you more than the pillow, the writing book, and the door" as she looked around the room. No matter what the objects, they always use the definite article "the" (not the indefinite "a" or "an"). For them love goes beyond something they can see. It's something definite. This morning, as my son shared his excitement for his "un"birthday celebration and reminded his dad to remember to take the cupcakes to school, I changed my mind about the "been there, done that" list. Despite the frustrtaion at the time spent in my kitchen yesterday, if my kids ask for rainbow cupcakes again, I will make them. I love them more than the rainbow.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Percentage Shift

The envelope arrived in the mail today.  The one marked PERSONAL and CONFIDENTIAL. The one that would tell me the results of my reappointment application, submitted in February.  It contained a contract through 2014 and a two page summary of my Dean's recommendation for reappointment and the personnel committee's evaluation of my work.  So the good news is that I have been reappointed, my last formal evaluation before submitting my tenure package.  As I read through the committee's evaluation of my work, I reflected on their comments.  The report was broken into three categories - research, teaching, and service - listed in this order.

It is common knowledge in the academic community that faculty must demonstrate excellence in each of these areas.  Institutions value each area differently, but I know that research is listed first at my university.  I knew it when I accepted the job 6 years ago.  I knew it when I became pregnant with twins in my first year. I knew it when I finally started writing again after my twins turned two.  It's the hardest of the three areas to balance as a working mom, and I feel I have done well in forging new research territory and writing for my academic community over the last few years, but I also know that I have room for growth in my research productivity.  My writing voice is best suited for personal writing or for teaching journals; my academic voice takes effort and time that I have struggled to find in my current position.

A few weeks ago my colleagues and I held a book club discussion of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.  As I read the book , I thought that academia offered many of the characteristics that Pink suggests create a motivating environment.  I left our discussion wondering how much autonomy I truly had in my job, and I embarked on a short study to see how I spent my working hours.

For one week I tracked my time and at the end of that week, I separated my activity into four categories: research, teaching, service, and email.  Research activities related to my current writing projects; teaching activities included planning for class, holding class, meeting with doctoral students, reading comprehensive examinations and dissertations, and responding to student work; service included any administrative tasks assigned to me, school or committee meetings, and pro bono consultation.  It was impossible to separate the time spent on individual emails, which may have fallen into any of the three categories (though most often in the service category), so I kept track of time spent responding to email separately.

My results in terms of the percentage of my time spent on each category:

Teaching  61%
Service    24%
Email       13%
Research   2%

Admittedly, this sample came from the end of the semester, and I would like to take samples next year from several other points; however, it is clear that I am not finding time for my research and writing, and the comments of the personnel committee on my reappointment package reflect these numbers above.  I dedicate myself to my students; I contribute greatly to the university and school; I need to continue to pursue prominent peer reviewed journals as venues for publication.

As a tenure track faculty member, I should be spending 1/3 of my time on my research.  To do that, these numbers need to shift.  And I'm not quite sure how to make that happen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Passion and Politics

When my husband and I decided to move our family to our "permanent" home, the one where we would raise our children through their school years, I researched districts thoroughly. I looked at public data; when possible, I spoke with parents, teachers and students in the districts; I thought about whether I would want to be a teacher in that district. We landed in a great area that includes local K-8 districts and a regional high school district. Though it's not my favorite configuration administratively, I am comfortable with this structure since it resembles the district where I began my teaching career. I know from a teacher's perspectives the challenges and benefits to a regional high school district.

My town's regional district just announced an administrative restructuring in response to state mandates and local concerns. As part of this restructuring, they are creating a district supervisor of English. This position is tempting for me, primarily because of the five mile commute it would afford. There are a host of other pros and cons to throwing my name in the hat for this position, all of which I shared with my husband this morning. What concerns me about that list, however, is the con that stands above all others - the person who takes this position will undoubtedly be responsible for ELA testing, accountability, and teacher morale related to these issues. I have been able to subvert these issues as a classroom teacher and teacher educator, working behind the scenes to build teenagers' literacy in spite of high stakes accountability. I fear that as an administrator, I would face politics head on, and I'm afraid of what it would do to my passion for teaching and learning.

Much has been said in my professional communities about the effects of standardization and testing on children's learning. I am currently reading Drive by Daniel Pink, which has helped me understand why a carrot and stick approach does little to motivate creative teaching and passionate learning. Teaching is an art; teachers need autonomy to assess their students, to know their communities, and to develop instruction that meets the needs of both. They need time to collaborate, time to talk with one another, and time to feed their own learning. Recently, I wrote an article that focused on the connections I have made as a teacher, connections that inspire my continued development. It might seem strange that great teaching is fueled by two seemingly disparate states - being autonomous and being connected. However, any great teacher will agree that these are two of the keys to success. If politicians understood this art of teaching, perhaps all of us in education would have less fear and more passion.

This morning my husband confirmed for me that changing jobs is not what I want - regardless of the commute. I like my current position, my colleagues, and my students. I love the autonomy that my job affords, and I appreciate the connections that I make nationally and locally to fuel my own learning. I have no doubt that my passion will be sparked time and again, and perhaps, I can continue to push politically in a way that others do not feel empowered to do.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fueling Up

I've owned several cars in my years as a driver. I've run out of gas in two of them. The first time I got caught with an empty tank, I was driving down Main Street in my hometown in my 1962 Corvair. I powered through the light at 8th street, and in the block between 7th and 6th street, the engine stalled. I was 16, a new driver, and my heart leaped into my throat. Cranking the non-power steering to the right, I was able to make the 90 degree turn onto 6th street and coast next to the open curb. I don't remember how I called home in that pre-cell phone era, but I do remember seeing my dad's car turn onto the street. He pulled beside me and calmly took his gas can to fill my tank. As he reattached the lid, he simpy said, "Never let your tank get lower than a 1/4 full."*

I've thought often of my dad's words over the years, particularly when my indicator light pops on while I am stuck in traffic miles from an exit. My husband and I have had some close calls, but we have so far managed to avoid running out of gas. My hubby is himself a car guy, and he has always stressed to me how important it is to follow the manufacturer's guidelines when selecting the grade of gas for each car. Despite the high gas prices, I dutifully pay for premium for my Z4. I want my Becka to run happily for me, to get me where I need to go.

Last week I participated in a "Reset Your Metabolism" cleanse with a group organized by my nutritionist. For seven days I paid close attention to the foods I ate. I was never hungry, always full from the variety of recipes allowed in this cleanse. The experience taught me several things, but my major epiphany came as I realized that food is fuel. I realize this simple statement might seem self obvious, but last week, when I required myself to follow the structure of the cleanse, eating three times per day and never after 7PM, I noticed my consciousness shift. I eat when I am hungry, and when I am busy, I often don't notice I am hungry until I completely run out of gas. Since I am often not hungry when I wake up in the morning (which, by the way, apparently means I am physiologically out of balance) and I often work through lunch or grab something quickly, I don't take the time to fuel my body with the premium fuel it needs. I've realized that I haven't heeded my dad's warning, and I often let my tank run empty, and I haven't been following my husband's directive and filling up with premium fuel.

On the flip side, I also realized that I have a habit of "comfort eating" at night. Snacks after 7PM, whether they were healthy or junky, have been a staple in my diet. During the cleanse I replaced these snacks with hot tea quite satisfactorily. My body didn't need the fuel at night because I had been giving it plenty during the day.

Food habits are hard to break. I've realized I have two that need to be broken. I need to stop eating comfort food in the evening, and I need to start eating mindfully throughout the day. Both of these changes will be possible, I think, because I've realized that food is fuel. My dad and my husband were both right - I don't want to run out of gas, and I don't want to gunk up my engine. Rather, I want to give my body the fuel it needs to keep me going - at work and at home - throughout the day.

*Six years later I ran out of gas again. This time I was driving my 1975 CJ5, and the gas indicator did not work. I kept a small notebook in my glovebox that recorded mileage, and I mathematically figured out when I needed to fill the tank. Because we were never sure how many miles per gallon that car got, I was extremely conservative and filled the tank regularly. That particular time, I subtracted wrong and ended up stranded in a parking lot. My dad rescued me again, pulling in beside me with his gas can.

Friday, April 13, 2012

High Stakes in Medicine

The only difference between an oncologist's exam room and a regular exam room, as far as I can tell, is that the stakes are higher.  I had plenty of time to take in my surroundings while I waited for the oncologist today.  The environment felt no different than a regular doctor's office, but for some reason, my blood pressure registered higher there.  I think that relates to the high stakes of the oncologist's office.

My doctor referred me to the oncologist as a precaution since some of my tests of a month ago left questions that still need to be answered.  The doctor today became the next in a long line of doctors who hypothesize, but never formally diagnose, that I have endometriosis.  Luckily, his non-diagnosis came on the heels of his being "pretty positive" that I don't have ovarian cancer.  He ordered one more test to be sure.  

So I'm moving on to solving the pain problem with Western medicine telling me to inject myself with hormones and holistic medicine telling me to treat it naturally.  I'm going to start with the natural and continue to consult with the Western doctors as I move forward.

My shifts in balance are already starting to take an effect.  I feel less stressed, and I find myself thinking less about what I have to get done and more about what I can accomplish in the space and time I have allotted.  My shift in healthy eating is challenging, but I am making progress.  Today I took a tour of my grocery store with my nutritionist , and happily I have narrowed down 12 aisles of shopping to 3 aisles and 4 pockets.  I know what I need to buy at the health food store and what I can purchase at the grocery store (and what I need to order from the local farm).  I've got a list of "safe" companies that are not trying to trick me with healthy-like labeling, and I know a few of the red-flag ingredients that will encourage me to return a product to a shelf.

Healthy eating is hard work; gaining the knowledge, shopping for the right products, and preparing non-processed meals takes time and effort.  However, in just a few weeks my focus on nutrition and overall health, including reduced stress, has given me more energy.  I'm continuing to learn, and I'm hopeful that attention to what goes into my body and the outside stresses placed upon me will ultimately help my body to be healthy and strong, fighting disease and pain naturally.

The debates about health care are often misinformed, and it isn't my intention to debate the merits of Western or Eastern medicine.  I believe both are based in science and healing, and each has its place in the care and treatment of individuals.  My experience this past month, however, has shown me how difficult it is to practice medicine in the US.  The oncologist today seemed somewhat surprised that my doctor referred me to him.  I imagine that looking at the whole picture and comparing it to the pictures he sees regularly with his patients, he saw little reason to be concerned.  From my primary doctor's perspective, however, I understand her referral.  If not for the peace of mind of a second opinion (which is always a good thing, I think), my doctor would certainly be concerned about malpractice if she missed a diagnosis.  

I have believed for the last month that I am cancer free, and I am happy to follow Western medical tests to confirm that diagnosis.  On the flip side, I believe what my holistic caregivers tell me - that treating my body well is the best way to remain cancer free.  So while I felt a bit guilty today taking an appointment with a prestigious oncologist, an appointment that could have been given to someone else, I feel reassured to move forward with my plan for achieving balance with a healthy body and mind.  Hopefully, I will not need to feel the high stakes of the oncologist's examining room again. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reflections on the Past

I am procrastinating by reading some writing from my past.  I found this post from my MySpace blog (now defunct), and it's made me realize how much I've grown since my first semester on the tenure track.  I still think the mothers that I describe mothers should have been sitting with the children, rather than commandeering all of those empty seats on a crowded train.  I have a little more patience with the kids' behavior, however.  Now I am also, officially, a comfortable NYC commuter.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Commuting on Sept. 11

I'm still wrapping my mind around being a NYC commuter.

The trains are crowded, something I didn't really expect, thus making my work on the train less productive than I'd hoped.  Last week I took one of the only open seats, which happened to be with a group of children (5 in all) and their two adult chaperones.  The children had flipped one of the three-seats to make a six-seat block for themselves, and they also commandeered a two-seater across the aisle.  The two adult chaperones sat together in another two-seater, blissfully ignoring the fact that the train was filling to capacity, and their party of 7 had taken over ten seats -- and that the children had free reign of the aisle as well as those seats.

I joined another woman who had ventured into "their" (meaning the kids) domain by sitting on the aisle of the 6-seater.  The cherubs, who could not sit still for the hour ride, crawled over my legs no less than six times before I rolled my eyes.  (I thought I was doing pretty well not to show any exasperation.  Remember, it's a morning train into NYC on a weekday.)  Apparently, one of the two mothers happened to look at me at that moment (after blissfully ignoring what was happening for the better part of half an hour), and decided that it was MY fault for sitting there.  In a voice loud enough for me to hear (but not loud enough for me to bother countering), she said:

"Well, why did she sit with children?  She is making me angry."

I was making her angry?  Get real.

I wanted to respond to her:  "Well, why don't you teach your children how to sit quietly on a public train."  Or better yet, "Well, why didn't you sit with your children and entertain them rather than letting them roam freely in the back of the train?  Can you not see that this train is full?"

A side note, all of these children were school-aged.  They should know how to sit quietly in one seat for an hour.

So I'm still wrapping my mind around the two-hour commute to my new job, trying to see it as a new way of life rather than a waste of time (as my multitasking brain is prone to do).  I'm trying to see this time as an opportunity to do nothing - something I've never been very good at.  I'm getting there with this new mindset.

I'm still wrapping my mind around being a NYC commuter.

And today is September 11.

It is the five year anniversary, a beautiful, cloudless, blue-sky day.  And my train is stopped just beyond Newark Penn Station.  No trains are going in or out as we await "police activity" and an evacuation at the terminal ahead.  To my right out the window I can see lower Manhattan - without the twin towers, but I can see them in my mind.  It is 8:30, 8:40, 8:45, and I stare into the space that is now a vacuum in all of our minds.  I see the plane flying low across the city.  My mind imposes the towers and I see the "first plane hit."  We still are not moving.

I call my mom so she doesn't worry, just in case this is another national emergency and I lose my cell phone connection like we all did 5 years ago in the greater NY area.  Of course, just calling makes her worry more.  She is very attuned to the fact that I am now a NYC commuter.  My stomach clenches, and I notice fear in people's eyes on the train.  None of us really wonder what is happening because none of us really wants to know.  My iPod blares the song "Waiting on the World to Change" and I wonder when it will.

Eventually the situation at NY Penn Station is resolved and we move again.  My stomach does not release its vice grip on me.  It's 9:03 when I step off the train onto the platform, where the sign above me announces in blood red letters, "September 11."  The thought crosses my mind - what would I have been doing if it were five years ago, and I were a NYC commuter.  For the first time, I am apprehensive in my new role.

And I am still wrapping my mind around what it means to be a NYC commuter.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

4 Shifts to Living a More Balanced Life

I am sitting on the train, commuting to my NYC office. I just finished reading a dissertation proposal. During Monday's commute, I read a full dissertation in preparation for the student's defense. The train is my third office, one that didn't get any use last week. Neither did my NYC office. I worked full days each day, but I stayed in my home office, taking time each day to reflect on some of the changes I am in the process of making. I also took time for a walk, to eat throughout the day, and to nap in order to let my body fully recover from the pneumonia.

The four major changes I am making will hopefully lead me to a more balanced life that keeps me healthy and happy in all the roles I play.

For years my husband has been chastising me for my eating habits. I rarely eat breakfast because I am not hungry in the morning, I regularly forget to eat lunch, and on my teaching days, I often do not have time to eat dinner. Compounding my poor eating schedule was my belief that healthy eating meant staying away from junk food, balancing calorie and fat intake with physical activity, and making "healthy choices" like turkey burger over beef and fruit/veggies for snacks.

I now realize my body needs more nutrition, and I need to know what that means. I've been working with a nutritionist for the last few weeks to understand better the choices I need to make in grocery selection and meal preparation to nourish my system. Already I have made changes that will affect me and the entire family, and I am committed to shifting my concept of healthy eating.

Sleep and Physical Well Being
I have always been a productive morning person. In high school I would wake in the pre-dawn hours to study for tests. When I taught high school, I would rise at 5AM, heading to school for an hour and a half of quiet planning and grading before my students entered the room. In my current position, I have been maximizing my commuting days by catching one of the direct trains to NYC, which required me to be out of the house between 5:45 and 6:15, and sometimes meant I worked a 16 hour day.

Though I was only doing the early morning twice per week, I realized that those days disrupted the sleep my body needs, and I wasn't building time into my schedule to properly rest. The physical toll became obvious when the pneumonia hit. A second change I am making is to commit to taking a later train on my commute days. Though this complicates my trip with a transfer, the extra hours of sleep are important. Shorter days in the city will also allow me to exercise more consistently, as I won't be exhausted the day after each commute.

Rethinking "I'm supposed to"
As a little girl, I earned the reputation of "good girl," and throughout my adolescence, I consistently did what was expected. I followed the rules and resisted peer pressure in order to do what I was supposed to do. I've followed that same pattern in my professional life.

Last week I didn't do what I was supposed to do, which was to be in my campus office. I had no meetings on my calendar, and I decided I could be more productive at home. I used the four hours of commuting each day to write, respond to students, and dig through my email. By the end of the week, I felt that I had caught up to the mounting pile in my inbox. It was difficult, however, to give myself permission to work solely from home. Likewise, on the homefront I made a difficult decision to withdraw from a community service project that I had committed to, and I also dropped out of a choir commitment. In the past I would have stayed the course because I had made the commitment. Backing out was difficult but necessary in order to clear my calendar wherever possible. As I move forward, I am going to make an effort to find more of these moments where I can choose not to do the "supposed to" and instead to make a decision that better maintains my needed balance.

Silencing the Worker Bee
The last area where I have begun to make changes is the hardest for me. I genuinely enjoy being busy, and I have a personal belief that if I commit to something, I should give it my best effort. Unfortunately, we have lost 7 full time faculty members in my department since I started my job. Though assignments have been reshuffled and administrative support provided, most of the faculty lines have not been filled. There are less people to take faculty administative responsibilities, less dissertation mentors and committee members, and less worker bees in general.  Simultaneously, many of us are involved in redeveloping programs. Changes in educational policy and the shifting landscape of education in the 21st century require revision, reflection, and redevelopment.  My colleagues and I are all overworked.

After the brick hit, and  I evaluated my work commitments and my roles as contributing faculty member, non-tenured researcher, and twinmom, I realized that I could not continue to give more than 100% effort in every area.  I will have to make choices at work to focus my efforts, meeting the needs of my students and our programs without stretching myself too thin.  I cannot always be a worker bee.  Sometimes I have to say "no."  Hopefully, this shift in focus will allow me to put energy into my research and writing and my family and still give my body the rest and nutrition it needs.

These shifts are my commitment to myself to try to lead a more balanced life - one that includes my family, my work, and myself.  I guess the most important realization I've had in this last month is that if I don't take care of myself, I can't possibly balance work and home.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Brick on my Head

Several years ago I attended an event sponsored by Oprah.  The day was focused on women's health and well being, and it culminated with a speech by Oprah that continues to resonate with me.  In her address to the audience, she suggested that the universe whispers to us, guiding us on our path, and if we ignore the whispers, we may eventually be hit on the head with a brick that forces us to evaluate our lives and possibly to change paths.

Consumed by my work and my life as a twinmom, I have been ignoring the whispers, and last week, the brick struck. It's a long story to tell so that the raw emotion comes through; I've written that version in a journal for my daughter to read someday. It's a story for her because it's a story for all women who need to learn to listen to their bodies and attend to proper medical care, both preventative and reactionary.

To summarize that long story, which spans three weeks of my life, I spent a full week wondering and another full week worrying that I might have ovarian cancer. The middle week I spent in bed consumed by pneumonia. The pneumonia became the easy problem as I listened to my doctor tell me they had found something on my ovary, something that needed to be evaluated further. My heart sank. My stomach twisted. My mind went to all the things that would need to change in my life if cancer was the diagnosis. "Having it all" battled with "having a life" as the seemingly "not possible" became a possibility.

I found out about the cyst on a Friday morning. I went for an MRI on Tuesday, still coughing from the pneumonia and hoping that I could mind-control my lungs for the 45 minute tests. For those who haven't had an MRI, the technician has one rule: don't move. Movement makes the images unreadable. I made it through the tests, and then I began waiting for the phone call.

For three days I waited, my stomach in knots, my phone my enemy. Due to several unfortunate coincidences, I was not able to track down the results until Friday morning, when I received good news that ruled out ovarian cancer. I'm still investigating the cause of pain that sent me to the doctor in the first place, but my family and I are breathing easier.

It was a rough week for me, but also for my husband, who was solid support for me, and for my mom, who came to help with the nanny transition (did I mention I had a new nanny starting this very week?) and making all house-related stress disappear, and for my dad and brother, who must have felt very much on the outside but very much invested in the outcome. I'm tearing up now as I think about their own fear and grief, which they never once let me see.

This brick that hit me, the possibility of being really sick, of having to give up some of the things that make me tick, caused me to evaluate all the stresses in my life. Being "pneumonia-quality" sick at the same time inspired me to make some changes. My body is telling me something, and I need to listen.

I try to impress upon my doctoral students that a researcher's greatest resource is herself, her time and energy. Researchers must constantly assess the level of this resource, balancing the needs of the study with the needs of the individual. I am currently doing this life audit, and I'll be rebalancing twinlife on the tenure track. Most of all, I want to start listening to the whispers and avoid the pain of a brick in the future.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Big Twin Decision Made

As charged as I was when I wrote my last post, this one will seem rather banal to some.  I'm okay with that because this blog is about balancing the many sides of twinlife - mom, working woman, and me!

Yesterday we registered the kids for kindergarten.  We have been evaluating the big question - to separate or not to separate - for several months.  Our decision is based on our kids' history, our experience in separate classrooms, our experience in same classrooms, our kids' feelings, conversations with their current teachers and their future principal, and all of my reading on the subject. 

I can summarize the reading easily - the answer to separate depends on the situation, and ultimately, no decision will permanently impact your children.

Despite the expert advice and the assurances that we will not ruin our children's lives with this one decision, the choice is not easy.  We had always assumed that we would separate them in kindergarten.  We want to see our kids as individuals, not as a pair, and we felt that keeping them in the same class increased the likelihood that everyone - teachers, friends, friends' parents, and us - would see them as "twins," rather than as M and R.

We separated them for their first year in preschool to help develop their independence.  The split worked well, with neither child missing the other.  For 7.5 hours per week, they enjoyed their isolation from each other, from twinworld.  The separation caused anxiety for me as a twinmom, which I wrote about at the time, and managing connections with 26 families (two classes of 14 kids each), some of whom knew the twin connection and most of whom did not, proved to be time consuming and challenging.  Managing different homework, different experiences, and different birthday party invites for two children of the same age added to the burden for me as a twinmom.

These challenges are certainly ones that parents of different-aged singletons face.  However, singleton parents have a chance to adjust to school before being hit with the second wave of families, homework, and overall kid management.  Twin parents are smacked in the face with everything at once - learning to "do school", developing a parent network, and developing standards of "equality" and "fairness" when life is clearly neither.  And for these reasons, a single class is much easier to manage, at least until the family has adapted.

I know that it is easier because the kids are in the same class this year.  We only had one option with an extended day at the preschool, so we, somewhat hesitantly, put them together this year.  The shift has been amazing in terms of family management, and, more importantly, it hasn't negatively affected the kids.  They do not cling to each other, and, in fact, according to their teachers, they rarely interact in the classroom. 

Their success in the same classroom this year threw a wrench into our established plan.  Evaluating the shift to a new, much bigger school next year, where none of their preschool friends will attend, has caused us to look more deeply at our children's needs.  Separation for over 6 hours per day, the shift to a new school where they do not have established friends, a history of anxiety with our daughter, and the timing of these changes with my tenure year -- though we think we could separate them, we have decided to keep them together for one year, to make the transition to public school easier on them and on our family.  The principal of their elementary school agrees with this path. 

Yesterday we made this decision official by writing it on the forms for the school.  Then my children made me proud by answering all of the questions that the teacher asked them, including telling her their phone number.  Of course, being children of today, they need to know more than one phone number - Mama's cell, Daddy's cell, and the house phone (which we never answer).  When the teacher asked my son to say his phone number, he looked quizzically at her.  I said, "Mama's number," to which he quickly replied, singing the number to the tune of Jingle Bells, just like his Granna had taught him.

Ironically, just behind us in the registration line was another set of B/G twins.  Their parents have decided to separate them next year.  When they told us their decision, my mind immediately questioned our own.  Should we separate them?  Would it be better for them to learn independent from each other?  Will my son dominate my daughter in the classroom?  But then I remembered all that we had considered - and that this one year will not impact them permanently.  So I wrote on the form "keep twins together."  Big decision made.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Advocacy and the Liberal Mom

Today's agenda included writing - I am supposed to submit the work I've been doing on a book proposal to an editor by the end of the day.  However, I have been reading articles recently that have collected and simmered in the back of my mind.  A conversation last night, coupled with this image today, has shifted my writing priority.  

I am becoming increasingly concerned about the status of women in the United States.  Though I will admit that most of my information comes from articles posted by my Facebook friends, most of whom share my political views, what I have read indicates a trend toward regulation of women's bodies and choices, effectively a trend toward dehumanizing women - a real step backward in the fight for equal rights and equal opportunity.  Two recent issues that have suggested this downward move in the status of women are the Personhood Laws  of Virgina and Oklahoma and the Ultrasound Law in Virginia.  My goal here is not to critique these political movements, but rather to share them as part of a public discourse that centers on issues of gender.  An article posted by Daily Mail (and confirmed in another article in the NY Times) suggests that a contender for President of the United States believes that President Obama's "health care overhaul encourages abortions [because] insurance companies are required to pay for prenatal testing."  This candidate's argument hinges on the claim that prenatal testing leads to increased D&C procedures.  I cannot comment on the legitimacy of this claim; I can see, however, that it completely negates the women who need or want the prenatal tests.  By taking away insurance coverage of these sometimes needed and often helpful tests, many women lose access to important care.  This stance, along with the political debates about personhood and required ultrasounds, do not put women's health and well being at the forefront.  We are reduced to secondary status.

These issues of gender equality are certainly connected to issues of gay and lesbian equality.  An Indiana lawmaker has made this clear in his views of the Girls Scouts, which, he is quoted as saying, "has been subverted in the name of liberal progressive politics and the destruction of traditional American family values."  He criticizes the girl scouts as a "'radical organization' that supports abortion and supports the 'homosexual lifestyle.'" He does not agree that the organization has a "strong positive influence... on the American woman." What is a strong, positive influence on the American woman?  Is it a return to an era where women did not garner equal protection, equal pay, or equal status?  Is a strong woman one who cannot make her own decisions?

This past week the governor of NJ vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, instead suggesting that such a sensitive issue should be decided by voters on a ballot question.  I sadly added his name to the growing list of lawmakers who have not stood up for equality.  I want him to voice publicly that all individuals have a right to the same support, care, and happiness.  I want all lawmakers to realize that women are also individuals who have these same rights.

Last night I conversed with the ladies of the L.M. crew (liberal mom).  I'm nicknaming us L.M. because our conversation determined that we certainly defy traditional standards in our homes and marriages.  All of us acknowledged that our husbands accepted our L.M. view - and we loved them for it.  Our conversation made me appreciate even more the model that my parents gave me and my brother.  From the balance of home and work to the assignment of chores (which were age-appropriate rather than gender appropriate), my parents assured me that I, as a female, was important, special, and equal.  

Gender equality is something I have always taken for granted.  I have been fortunate not to fight gender discrimination openly in the workforce.  My mom's generation worked hard to fight that battle.  I have never felt slighted socially or academically because of my gender.  But recently, I notice that being a woman is, indeed, different.  From blogs that I discussed in an earlier post to laws that are being passed, I feel as though society is trying to put me in my place, to take away my ability to make decisions that are right for me and my family.  I fear that this kind of discrimination will go unnoticed, lying insidiously below the surface of more open debates about gay and lesbian rights. All of these conversations must voice the inherent inequality in legislation that is passed, or not passed, that limits the rights of breathing, thinking humans.

I recently attended a conference that focused on advocacy in education.  In one of the sessions, the facilitators asked us to write about a time when we were engaged in advocacy work.  I thought hard about the work I have done as a teacher.  I encouraged my high school students to hear the voices of "others," and to listen to voices that are not always heard.  In my graduate classes I ask students to enact change in their schools and communities.  Despite my positioning as an advocate, I questioned whether I had truly done advocacy work.  As a student of history, I know the advocacy work of my parents' generation - the amount of sacrifice that it took to change society.  I marvel at the bravery of advocates such as the Freedom Riders and question whether I have that kind of grit inside of me.  I also know that despite the gains of the Boomer generation, there is much more work to be done and that prejudice still exists on many levels.  I wonder how I can become a stronger advocate.  I'm starting today with this blog post.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mommy Guilt and Neuroplasticity

A friend sent me a link to the latest Momastery post at Huffington Post this morning.  As I read it, I couldn't help but make a connection to my neuroplasticity and mom-brain theory.  It takes a while for humans to re-wire our brains.  For moms who are transitioning in life - the birth of a child (or two) and returning to work; leaving the workforce to stay at home; going back to the workforce after working at home - the adaptation period opens the doors to guilt. 

For the record, I believe the debate that Momastery writes about, like many debates where individuals come from different life perspectives, is ridiculous.  Each woman (family) needs to choose what is right for her (their) situation.  No judgment from others needed or tolerated.  What would be nice, instead of the "friendly fire" that Momastery describes, is an understanding that all moms go through transitions and that adapting to those transitions takes time.  Support through the change, rather than judgment about the decisions that sparked the change, would be the appropriate course.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Neuroplasticity and My Twinmom Brain

One of my followers commented once that she was exhausted after reading my post. My schedule overwhelmed her. She, like many of my friends, wondered how I do it. My answer to that question, "How do you do it," has always been "with a lot of help." I have parents who will drop everything to help, colleagues who understand the life of a non-tenured faculty member, and a babysitter that keeps my kitchen sink clear and my kids' clothes clean - and folded neatly in the drawers I have labeled with my label maker.

Organization also plays a role, and though some of my coworkers give me a hard time about planning ahead, planning ahead and keeping my options open (my mom's consistent advice to me growing up) has served me well in this balancing act I perform.

So until today, I assumed the answer to the "how do you do it" question was in asking for and accepting help and in organization. Today I learned that another factor might also be at play. My brain might have adapted to this crazy life I lead.

A few of my colleagues and I have decided to start a book club in order to push our thinking about teaching and learning in the contemporary world. Our current selection, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, deals with the human brain, its malleability and the effect of the Internet on its functioning. Carr introduced me to the concept of Neuroplasticity, a relatively new understanding in the world of brain. Neuroplasticity suggests that the human brain is flexible and that neurons are not solidified in their connections during childhood. In fact, neurons can be re-wired in adulthood according to daily functioning and experience. (This is my layman explanation and understanding of a very technical concept that I've only read about in this one book. Please be kind in your feedback.)

My first aha moment came as I read: No wonder it is difficult for moms to re-enter the workforce after taking time away to rear their children. Not only do they need to catch up on the 5 to 20 years of growth in the field, which is exponential in today's society, but they also need to re-wire their brains, which have literally adjusted to the routines of working in the home.

My second aha moment came during a conversation with an expecting twin mom. This mom has an older child, and she will be adding twinfants to a family that has already established norms for child rearing. I cannot offer advice to twinmoms in this situation because my only experience is twin experience. As I've said to many, we simply didn't know anything different. I do not know whether it is easier or harder if you have twinfants after you have had a singleton experience. What I think I've come to understand today, however, is that when my children were born, my routine changed. That change in daily stimuli started a process of re-wiring in my brain. I have adapted.

So, my new addition to the "organization and lots of help" response is that my brain is now wired to manage it. And, in fact, I'm pretty sure I'd have no idea how to manage the life of a work at home mom. But eventually, my brain would figure it out.