Friday, February 29, 2008

The Mommy Diaries

After we put the kids down tonight, I was able to score some "me" time in front of the TV with my latest Netflix selection - "The Nanny Diaries". For those of you that haven't seen this movie, it is worth a watch. I read the book years ago as a newly minted mom and loved it at the time, but honestly couldn't remember how it ended this evening. I started the movie with the usual book/movie expectations (the book is always better!), but I'm not sure if it's because it's been so long since I read the book that I forgot key comparisons or if the movie is actually GOOD, but it was one of the best movies I've seen in awhile.

Particularly relevant for me was the timing of the movie. Having spent the past four years trying to find the perfect work/family balance with a job I absolutely adore, I recently made the decision to leave my job to stay home full-time with my kids. This was difficult for me, given that from Day 1 of my freshman year of college, I made educational and career choices with the distinct goal of building a career that would allow me to "have it all" and balance work, home, marriage, career, and (as a lover of children) more than the average 2.5 children.

Unfortunately, even with the ideal work setup - a wonderfully flexible boss that let me work anywhere from 15 hours to 30 over the years since I've had children, telecommuting privileges, and the most amazing team of co-workers one could ask for, it just wasn't working out for our family. And did I mention that I also have a nanny sent directly from heaven? I actually went through a long progression deciding to quit, wondering if I couldn't make the ideal employment situation work, how would I ever be able to achieve the Holy Grail of Motherhood for My Generation: Work/Family Balance?

I am excited, but scared to death. Even working just part-time has kept a piece of the "me" I had before I was "mommy" alive. No matter how out of control things get at home, I can go somewhere where I am still smart, organized, and recognized for my contributions. At home, although I will have the distinct pleasure of being the one to drop off and pick up my sons at pre-school (one of the the things I hated missing most because of work), I will not be recognized for exceeding pickup time goals or benchmarks. As a classic overachiever, it kills me to think that all the years of AP classes in high school, internships and part-time jobs in college, and professional effort will be for naught when I am relegated to the position of Head Party Mom. I wonder if I will lose my intellectual and competitive edge, if I'll fall behind on industry trends, if "they" (the people in my industry) will forget about me, and if I'll even be able to get back in the workforce when I want to go back. Still, with the demanding responsibilities of my job, a husband starting a job with significant travel, and a third child on the way in August, I realized something had to give.

Not too long into the movie, I was joined by my youngest son, who was having some problems getting to sleep. Bored and lonely because his brother had sacked out long ago, he finally materialized next to the couch begging to "snuggle up" with mommy. As a mom of two boys, I don't often get a request to snuggle up, so I overlooked the bedtime-stalling manipulation tactic and we settled in to watch the movie together.

As I struggled to watch the movie around his head, he squeezed my nose, rubbed my cheek, and patted my hair while I rubbed his tummy. It was one of those rare, sweet parenting moments (at least with boys) where we were just enjoying being together, sweetened all the more when he said, "I love you, Mommy." We snuggled there, just the two of us, and he drifted off in my arms while I finished the movie. And at the end, I received an important reminder from the infamously horrendous Mrs. X in the movie, that "Of all the privileges I have, being the mother of (my sons) is the most important."

Granted, this Upper East side, 24/7 "me time" mommy wasn't struggling with the same balance issues that most of us do, but you get the point. So benchmarks, goals, and budgetary targets be damned, I know that I am privileged to have the choice to spend more time with my sons and I plan to enjoy every second (or at least as many of them as I can). In a few years, they won't ever ask to snuggle, they won't care if I pick them up from school or not, and they'll probably be too embarrassed to say they love me. So I figure I owe it to myself to soak up all of those things that I can now - it's all too fleeting. The professional challenges and achievements will be waiting for me when I come back. And I will be back. As an older and wiser mom who's been there recently told me, "You CAN have it all. You just can't have it all at once."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Joys of Toys - Or Not?

For two kids who are both boys born into the same family within a span of less than two years, my children could not have more different play styles. My oldest has never really had much use for "traditional" toys, preferring instead to inspect and disassemble an assortment of electronics ranging from DVD/VCR players to Dustbusters and vacuums to keyboards/computers to cameras of all kinds (digital, disposable, and video). In the absence of an electronic, he prefers mostly to loll about on the floor, sucking his thumb and staring into space waiting for Clown Mom to suggest the next exciting and engaging (and preferably art or electronic-related) activity.

My second child needs only a few dozen matchbox cars and some sort of container (lunchbox, Ziploc bag, backpack, even an old coffee can will work in a pinch) with which to carry around said cars EVERYWHERE he goes.

Yet in an effort to stimulate, engage, and educate them, we have two entire bedrooms (and their respective closets) filled with train sets (and a train table to play them on), Little People playsets, Playmobil, Legos, board games, puzzles, oversized cars and trucks for outdoor play, a rocket ship playhouse, and a Little Tykes kitchen. That's not including two complete bookshelves filled with children's books and an entire linen closet devoted to art supplies. We have more educational toys than most school districts, yet "cars" and "wandering aimlessly in search of electronics" are the favorite games in our household.

I was a bit worried, until a friend whose children have similar play habits forwarded me this recent NPR article. The basic premise is that by forcing commercialized and structured play (read: toys and structured activities) on our children, we are compromising something critical to our children's emotional and cognitive development: imaginative play. The argument is that more forced and structured play leads to a decrease in self-regulation and private speech (telling oneself what one is doing) - both critical to healthy development.

I always used to wonder about the parenting skills of my grandmother, God bless her, who had four children in 26 months (a set of twins in the midst). My mother claims that when she was a child, if it wasn't a school day where she was walking both ways uphill in the snow, then she was home and her mom would throw all four children out into the woods to play, allowing them to come in only for meals and then bath and bed. My mother doesn't recall Tonka trucks, a sandbox, a water table, or the Pottery Barn rocket ship playhouse being a part of the outdoor playscape (nor was there a video surveillance camera to fend off child molesters and kidnappers, but it was a different time, I guess). It was simply the four children and what the woods had to offer. That's the way it was, and they liked it (anyone ever seen that Saturday Night Live skit about the Grumpy Old Man - if not, I guess I am older than I think I am!)

In fact, imaginative play has been around for eons - longer than toys, for sure! Back in the day, children made their own toys instead of ignoring the million dollar mini-toy stores their parents dutifully stocked in their bedrooms. And they sat still in school. And there were less behavior problems in school and less crime after school. And probably less kids on medication for ADD.

Now don't get me wrong - I love a great toy as much as the next guy. And no, I can't back up the claims made in the paragraph above because I am too tired to chase down the research and it may not even exist, but it is extrapolated from other research mentioned in the article.

But what this article did for me was make me re-think the way I approach my children's playtime. Maybe they don't have to be engaged in structured activities every second. Maybe left to their own devices on the kitchen floor, they will come up with something even better than the art classes I have to offer - like "Monster", which I caught them playing the other day (chasing each other with outstretched arms and roaring). So my new goal is to chill out a bit and see where a little bit of free time leads them. As long as it isn't into the dangerous, unfenced, unsupervised woods behind my least not until elementary school.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Recently Discovered Treasure - The Coffee Park

This week we discovered a new hangout and I cannot say enough good things about it! A friend discovered The Coffee Park in East Cobb and it is THE BOMB (and worth the hike to East Cobb). This brilliant concept is the brainchild of a mom who had two children under two and boy, don't I wish I'd thought of it myself. Actually, I often dreamt of it, I just never DID anything about it so kudos to her!

It's a full-service coffee shop with an indoor playground for kids up to age 5. Best part - it is cheap and the staff takes your kids off your hands for you! For $5 per kid and only $1 per additional sibling, you can hang out for several hours. They take your kids into the play area (behind a baby gate so they can't escape and an ID system so no one else can take them) while you sit and talk with friends, work on computer, or just stare into space. The food is mom and kid friendly (everything from cappucinos and paninis to PB&J) and very reasonably priced.

But what really makes this place a hidden gem is the staff in the playroom. I peeked in periodically to see how my kids were doing and witnessed my oldest lobbying to exit the play area and come bug mom. Instead of taking the easy way out and letting him come to me, as many staff at facilities like these do, the staff actually attempted to re-engage him in play. When I peeked in a few minutes later, they had him rolling on the floor with laughter and having a good time with a new activity. The only time they came to get me was when he needed to go to the bathroom and he was happy to return to the play area afterwards.

One caveat for moms of "older" (i.e. older 3's and 4's) kids - the play area is definitely targeted towards toddlers and may seem a little basic to preschoolers. My youngest (2 1/2) was happy because there was a train table and my oldest (almost 4) because his friends were there, but I can definitely see that I need to space our trips out or the novelty will wear off and I won't get TWO AND A HALF HOURS of peace and quiet again!

If you get a chance, try it out - it is the perfect outing solution for moms with closely spaced little ones who often find it difficult to manage them in places like the park, children's museum, and zoo. My only regret about visiting The Coffee Park is that I wish I'd known about it sooner!

NOTE: I don't know the owner and I wasn't paid to say any of this. I just want to give her some free publicity out of gratitude for the several hours of peace and quiet she gave me!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Doing Disney Toddler Style

So apparently the holiday travels weren't as traumatic as we thought because a few weeks after New Year's we decided to brave the ULTIMATE trip and take the boys to Disney again. The story of how this idea was born is a long one, so I'll spare you, but here's what it boiled down to. We had the most amazing time.

My friends were in disbelief that we were actually attempting this feat for the second time in less than a year (without the grandparents this time, no less) and they all wanted to know how it turned out and what the scoop was for "doing Disney" with toddlers. And I learned some new stuff to share this time! So here goes:

Because of the last-minute decision to go and astronomial airfare, we drove. Again. And I must say, I think the worst part of the trip was the drive there and back. But this could just have been because we have travelled approximately the same distance from here to the moon by car since the beginning of December. I think they were over it.

Last time we stayed an an extended stay hotel with a kitchen suite, which was really awesome. This time (a budget trip), we stayed in one of the super affordable, kid-friendly Disney All Star Resorts. I cannot say enough positive things about this place and we will stay in one every time until we win the lottery and move over to the Grand Floridian. I will say that they are definitely budget rooms. The towels (which you use for the pool and the shower) are thin and postage-stamped sized. The beds are not the most comfortable. The parking is halfway across the universe from some of the rooms in the mega complex (although we were far from our car but close to the pool!). But these drawbacks are all offset by the pluses. My favorite things about the Disney All Star Resort:
  • In true Disney fashion, spotlessly clean with hyper-friendly/helpful staff.
  • Massive pools with vigilant lifeguards! Seriously, in three summers of swimming with my kids I can't remember the last time I saw a lifeguard that was actually GUARDING my kids! These Disney guys are on it. Don't forget your swim diapers/plastic pants - they are required.
  • Food court with wide variety of kid-friendly foods (and healthy options as well).
  • For $12 or something like that, you can purchase an insulated Disney mug that you can refill unlimited times during your visit (only at the hotel) with soft drinks, lemonade, hot chocolate, coffee, and icees (my kids' personal faves). Plus, if you keep it with you at the parks you can fill it up at water fountains rather than lug around 15 bottles of water.
  • On-site video arcade. My kids are still young enough that they don't care if you have quarters to actually make it GO. They will fake speed-race each other for hours.
  • Free shuttle that leaves every 20 minutes to/from all the parks and Downtown Disney. SUPER convenient. We had planned to drive to the parks so we could be on our own timetable, but a friend said the shuttle was easy as pie and it was!
  • On certain days of the weeks, certain parks open early or stay open late ONLY for people staying on Disney properties. This alone made it worth the stay at this hotel. On the Magic Kingdom extended hours day, we went to the park, came home for a nap when the kids meltded down, went back at 6 pm and closed the place down at 11!

OK so now onto some of the other handy dandy tips we learned this time:

  • Always go to Disney in the middle of January. There is NO ONE there. The longest we waited for a ride was 10 minutes. Seriously.
  • Unless your child is in junior high, always bring a stroller. Ours are almost 4 and 2 1/2 and we debated only bringing one because usually both of them want to walk (or run!). We ended up throwing in a second cheapie umbrella stroller at the last minute and we used the both all the time - especially getting around the massive hotel grounds! Since we brought inexepensive ones, we didn't worry about leaving them parked for hours at the park while we did rides or having them get wet in a short downpour that occurred while we were there.
  • Which brings me to my next lesson: bring rain slickers, sunblock, and hats for everyone and shove them in your backpack. The weather turned on a dime and we were caught in a downpour, but I busted out our handy-dandy rain slickers and we kept on trekking. They sell them at the parks for a fee, of course, but if you can remember - bring your own!
  • Ditto with snacks/lunch for the kids. We packed fruit leather, goldfish, and PB&J for the kids, which allowed us to feed them when they were hungry (during peak lunch line hours) and buy us some time to eat later, during off-peak hours. Less time wasted waiting in line.
  • Don't forget your camera. If for example, your husband packed the camera but for some absolutey ridiculous and inexplicable reason left the camera BATTERY in the hotel room, it will cost you $19 to buy a disposable one. No joke.
  • If the kids are melting down, go back to the hotel and rest. This is when your extended hours pass comes in handy!
  • There is an infant ride/wait feature, which we didn't use since the lines weren't long. This means, for example, that Mom can ride Space Mountain while Dad waits in a special area with baby and then they can switch without waiting in line twice. I'm not sure what the "infant" age limit is on that...
  • Finally, do NOT ride Stitch's Great Escape. In this 4-D experience Stitch will belch a hot dog on you and it is absolutely sickening. Our 4 year old, who adores Stitch, is scarred for life.