Three moves in three years

It’s been awhile since I last blogged, so I thought I would give a quick update while I’m working on some more fully-formed blog posts. I’ve also been “microblogging” on Instagram, at least until I lose interest in it, so follow me there if you like.

We moved back to Alaska at the beginning of the summer, and I was extremely happy about it, as living in Phoenix was completely killing my spirit. I can’t even express how much I hated living there, and I can’t think of a place in the U.S. that I would be more ill-suited for. So I’m glad to be back in Alaska.

It has been a really difficult summer, though. This is the third time we’ve moved to a different state in the past three years, the second time with two kids. Moving with kids is completely awful, in so many ways. It’s hard to believe but there was a time in my life when moving was exciting and enjoyable, pre-kids. There’s another theme of my life right now: many things that were exciting and enjoyable before kids, are now tedious and exhausting.

The past three years of constant moves and instability in many areas of my life have really worn me down. It takes a long time to settle into a new home, physically and mentally. In Arizona it took us about a year to fully unpack, so right about the time we finally got rid of all of our moving boxes, we found out we were moving again. Right now, we’re temporarily living in a sub-optimal apartment while getting ready to build a new house, so it will be a long time before we’re really settled.

It’s even harder to become mentally settled in a new place. I never would have felt at home in Phoenix, no matter how long we lived there. Prior to that, I was just beginning to warm up to Colorado when we found out we had to move to Phoenix. I know I will feel at home here in our new town, but our daily life is a lot more difficult now for many reasons. Meanwhile, I have a lot of thoughts to process and no time or energy for it, and it’s hard to lead my kids through all this change and help them deal with their feelings when I can’t attend to my own.

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A mindful take on (non)tradition

Two years ago I blogged about why I don’t do Santa with my kids, and what I wrote still stands. So far there have been no issues; we simply don’t make Santa a part of our Christmas traditions, and AJ hasn’t noticed anything lacking. AJ is in preschool now so she hears a lot about Santa, and she talks about him sometimes. Sometimes I’m not sure whether she really knows that Santa is make-believe or whether she thinks he’s real, but the same could be said about her relationship to many other fictional characters.

Most parents who do Santa with their kids try to reverse-engineer the myth to teach good values and give greater meaning to holiday traditions. They reframe Santa as being symbolic of the spirit of giving, an example of generosity, a lesson on how to have childlike wonder and imagination, etc. Obviously I don’t think any of these explanations really work as a justification. I think they are all afterthoughts to a longstanding tradition that most people follow simply because it is a longstanding tradition.

I read this article, The holiday lies we tell our children, encouraging mindfulness in parents who do Santa. The article encourages parents to keep up the Santa lie for as long as possible in order to keep these reverse-engineered values alive and to test their kids’ ability to figure it out for themselves. For me it further shed light on how ridiculous today’s iteration of the Santa tradition is, and it saddens me to see the level at which some parents undermine their children’s intellect by telling lie after lie to keep the charade going. However, the end of the article has a series of tips for parents on how to be mindful about holiday traditions, and I found them thought-provoking. Below are excerpts from the four tips in the article and my thoughts on how they apply to my family:

  1. Acknowledge your child’s inner experience

What does Santa mean to your child?  You can ask, “When you imagine Santa, what do you feel/think/experience?”  A child needs a sense of mystery, of wonder (actually, we all do).  Learn to sense the world though your child’s imagination.

  1. Be aware of your own inner experience

To me, a mindful parent is one who is aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing what they are doing.  A mindful parent is also tracking the impact what they do has on their child.  So in regard to our cultural myths, why are you retelling the myth?  What does Santa, or whatever myths you tell, mean to you?

The two points above made me realize that I have my own reasons for being anti-Santa, and my reasons may not resonate with my children. They have their own inner experience of the way we celebrate holidays that’s different from mine. So it’s important that I not only be mindful of my own reasons for not doing Santa, but also consider it from my children’s perspectives and try to reframe our Santa-free Christmas in ways that are meaningful for them.

Granted, my kids are only 1 and 4, so they have no way of really understanding what holiday traditions mean yet. But I already know a lot about their personalities, and one thing I know is that they are both Feelers. I am a Thinker, and most of my reasons for not doing Santa are Thinking-based. Objective truth is more important to me than personal feelings. Not lying to my kids or undermining their rationality is more important to me than giving them a feely, magical, mysterious experience. But as Feelers, they would probably value the magic, mystery, and camaraderie of being Santa-believers more than the rationality. So I need to give them other holiday traditions that emphasize a feeling of wonder, mystery, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves. And when they’re old enough for me to explain why I didn’t do the Santa rigamarole with them, I will emphasize those reasons that tap into their sense of empathy and justice rather than the reasons having to do with objective truth and skepticism.

  1. Convey your family and community history

What are the traditions and rites that your family or community celebrate?  If they come from some established tradition, then many of the values and norms you pass along are long-standing and steeped in history.

My husband and I don’t really follow any long-standing traditions and norms, and that’s one of the things I love about our family. As skeptics, we carefully consider each value, belief, tradition, and ritual that we adopt and pass on to our children, so there are no family or religious traditions that are not of our own making. However, our values have their own bases, and one of them is that my husband and I are both Rationals (intuitive thinkers, or NTs). We need to be mindful of that because as our children are Feelers, we will need to explain our values to them in ways that they can connect with and find personal meaning in, as well as help them understand who we are.

  1. Define your rites of passage

What are our rites, our transitions?  How do we move from one stage to the next?  A mindful parent is having two conversations at once with a child.  The one related to the thing we’re talking about, and the one related to what that thing actually is spokesperson for.  Our culture is losing many rites of passage, of passage from one stage to the next.  As we are a symbolic species, we relate to allegory, myth, story, narrative, archetypes, character and so on.  Symbolism allows us to relate a learning from one circumstance to another.  It’s how we generalize our learning, and one of the ways we pass down information from one generation to the next.

I don’t think of my children’s growth as being in discrete stages with thresholds through which they pass from one to the next, and I don’t view any aspect of our holiday traditions as being “only for kids” or “only for adults”. In my own experience, rites of passage have never been defined by traditions or ritual but have always been organic, derived from lived experiences as I make my own meaning continuously through life. That said, I understand that many people do derive meaning from traditions and rituals as rites of passage, especially children. That is a topic for another discussion, and something I will have to think a lot more about. Symbolism, narrative, and myth can be helpful ways to define and interpret life experiences, and I want to honor that for my kids in ways that also honor reason.

The Sound Limit (or why I don’t like talking about my kid)

As an extremely introverted INTP, I feel like there are a limited number of words that can come out of my mouth each day, and a limited amount of sound that my ears can take in each day. After I reach those limits, I shut down. I don’t think those limits were ever really tested until I became the parent of a toddler. Boy, does she test them.

Not only does my daughter enjoy screaming at the top of her lungs for sport, she also narrates everything that she sees at all times and will repeat, “Mommy, that’s a yellow car! That’s a yellow car! Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, that’s a yellow car!” until I acknowledge the yellow car and begin an in-depth conversation about it. The amount of talking I have to do per day is mind-blowing, because I have to repeat everything at least five times before my daughter will acknowledge it. I also spend a lot of words talking about her and discussing parenting issues with my husband, which decreases the reservoir of words that I have left for discussing things that actually engage my mind.

When I take my daughter to playgroups with other kids, I can’t bear the conversations that go on between the other moms. They center around all of my least favorite topics: baby sleep, toddler feeding, kids clothes, cute things kids do, cooking, crafting, home renovations, etc. I don’t feel the need to talk about my daughter’s cute antics with anyone but my husband, and I don’t like to talk about her sleep and feeding issues even with him because I think they’re boring. Unfortunately we have to do a lot of troubleshooting in those areas, so we talk about them out of necessity.

If I don’t even like spending my limited number of words per day talking about my own kid, you can bet I don’t want to spend my limited sound intake listening to someone else talk about their kids. And I like my house a lot less than I like my daughter, so why would I ever talk about it, much less want to hear about someone else’s house? There are times when I can tolerate small talk and even times when I can be reasonably engaged in it, but being a parent of a toddler is not one of those times. Obviously I don’t have much success making friends these days.

I recently started my own playgroup for parents who don’t talk about their kids. We get together for playdates and while our kids play, we talk about science, books, art, philosophy, anything that doesn’t involve parenting or “homemaking”. It’s a pretty small group, as you can imagine that the number of stay-at-home parents who prefer talking about intellectual topics to talking about their kids is rather small, but it has made a huge difference in my mood.

Other parents often give me weird looks when I show no interest in talking about kids, like I must not like my kid because I don’t want to talk about her. But it just seems redundant to talk about kids and parenting when I already spend every day living it. My daughter is awesome and the proof is right in front of me, so I’m not going to state the obvious. I love spending time with my family, and there’s nothing better than getting a hug from my daughter. I would just rather be talking about science while it happens. I have a finite number of words and an infinite number of things I want to talk about.

Why I don’t do Santa

This Christmas my daughter is two years old, so she’s able to understand everything that’s going on around her. Last Christmas she was too young to grasp much about the holiday, but I thought hard about whether or not we were going to be a Santa-believing family. (My husband didn’t feel too strongly about it either way.) I decided against it. Here’s why I do not like Santa Claus:

I hate lying. I really hate lying, even little white lies, and I also think about everything way too seriously and have to follow my principles for everything. I just don’t see a good reason to present Santa as truth. I enjoy Santa as a fictional character, along with the myriad fictional characters of childhood. I don’t see why Santa Claus should be elevated above all the others (along with the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, who will also remain purely fictional in our house).

Gifts should not be the focus of Christmas. This may sound strange coming from an atheist, but I really want to teach my daughter to appreciate the deeper meaning of Christmas. Even though my husband and I don’t believe in God, Christmas is still a meaningful and special holiday for us. For us it’s a celebration of family and traditions, a time to have fun together and be cozy in the darkness of winter, a time for special music and food, a time to be thankful for everything we have and remember those who are less fortunate. I want the Christmas season to be a time of enjoyment and celebration in itself, and not just a buildup of anticipation towards the opening of gifts.

Christmas lists teach bad values. I know Christmas lists aren’t solely the domain of Santa Claus, but it seems like every kid who believes in Santa writes him with a list of things they want. I think this practice teaches gluttony and selfishness. It causes kids to expect the things they asked for, and sets them up for disappointment if they don’t get it. Parents should have a dialogue with their kids about not only what the kids want for Christmas, but also what is reasonable and in line with their family’s values and ability– instead of making up excuses for why Santa might not fulfill their desires.

Santa is not fair. The above reasons alone might not have put me in the anti-Santa camp, but this one does. I don’t know why people want children to believe that everyone’s Christmas gifts come from the same person, or that they depend on how good they’ve been. What a child receives for Christmas depends on her family’s economic situation and her parents’ values regarding gift-giving, among other things. Kids ALWAYS compare their Christmas haul, and the Santa myth drastically underestimates their sense of equality. I would never want my daughter to think that she was better than someone whose parents couldn’t afford presents, or that she was not as good as someone who got better presents than she did. Jealousy is a normal childhood emotion, but I think it belittles that emotion to ignore or try to explain away the obvious inequality in the Santa myth.

When I was a young child, my parents were very poor. They couldn’t afford to buy me any real toys, and I only got one small gift for Christmas each year. (One year, it was a pencil box.) But they still pushed Santa on me, and I resented it. I never believed it, because I knew that Santa was supposed to bring awesome fun toys for good little boys and girls, and I had to beg and beg my parents and maybe Santa would get me a pencil box. I had an inherent sense of justice and I knew it wasn’t right when my friends got Lego sets and new dolls. I think I would have felt much better about the situation if my parents had just been honest with me about the fact that Santa wasn’t real and we were poor (both of which I knew anyway).

When my daughter is a little bit older, I want to talk to her about the reality that Christmas gifts are not fair, that some kids get fewer gifts than she does and some receive more. I want to talk to her about why this is, and about our family’s values when it comes to money and gifts. And for that matter, that life is not fair, and some people have more or less through no fault or effort of their own. These conversations would not be possible if I taught her to believe in Santa.

What I’m teaching my daughter by quitting grad school

One of the biggest deterrents to my quitting grad school was the example I set for my daughter. I want her to see that women should have careers and can follow their dreams. I want her to value education and intellectualism. I want her to persevere and work hard when things get difficult. And I wanted her to see all of these examples in her mom. I didn’t want her to see me as a quitter.

That’s why I agonized for so long over the decision to quit, and why I forced myself to continue working instead of taking a semester off right after she was born. Now that I’ve quit, I know that I’ve made the right decision, but I still worry that I may be setting a bad example for her. So here are some other things that she can learn by my example.

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She’s watching me closely.

When your situation changes, your plans may need to change.

When I decided to go to grad school, I was an independent single girl with nothing to restrict my career choices. At the time I chose my field of study, getting married and having a family wasn’t even on the horizon for me. Then I met my husband and it became clear that my future was going to be different from what I’d envisioned, but I still entered grad school as per the original plan. Conveniently, the school I wanted to attend was in the same city where my husband lived, so I didn’t question if it was still the right move. But I should have. His career was geographically incompatible with mine, and I knew that after I finished grad school, I was not going to be able to have the kind of career I had in mind. I also knew that I was going to be a stay-at-home-mom for a few years after I finished my degree. Still, I went to grad school because I believed in learning for its own sake, and because I still thought there was some way I could have my dream career.

Then we had a baby, and I no longer cared about following my dream career or earning a degree for its own sake. The only thing I cared about was having a strong family and helping to provide for them. In retrospect I wish I had spent those two years in a more practical degree program with better job prospects.

It’s important to make the right decision for you, at the right time for you.

I had many long discussions with my husband about quitting school from the time our daughter was born, and he almost always said I should quit. I asked a lot of people for advice before making a decision, and almost everyone said not to quit. But I kept working for another semester because I didn’t want to make a final decision until I could trust my own judgment outside the firestorm of postpartum hormones.

I may be the only person who ever thinks that I made the right decision. My daughter may someday question my decision and wonder why I gave up my advanced degree when education is so important to our family. My husband may wonder why I didn’t quit right away, or why I couldn’t give up my parenting ideals and hire a nanny so I could finish what I’d already put so much work into. Everyone I know may be disappointed in me for not finishing my degree in the final stretch. And that’s okay. When I finally decided to quit, I knew I was making the right decision at the right time.

Your marriage and family should always come first.

While I was still in grad school, I could pull myself together to take care of my daughter, but I was so tired all the time that I didn’t have any energy left to be nice to my husband, and we fought all the time. I finally realized that no marriage is immune to these effects. If it had been my husband’s job that was causing this amount of stress to our family, it would have been the right thing for him to change jobs even if it meant taking a pay cut, as long as we weren’t struggling financially.  In effect, that’s what I did, and it’s what we all needed.

It’s never too late to quit.

Everyone said that since I had already completed two years of a three-year program, I should stick with it so all my work wouldn’t go to waste. But in the end, I decided that nothing was worth sacrificing the health of my marriage for any amount of time. Even if I had only had a few months left to endure, it would not have been worth the cost. A few more months or one more year could mean all the difference to our marriage and the well-being of our family.

Quitting grad school: a family decision

I recently quit a graduate degree program in the sciences to become a stay-at-home mom. This is the story of how and why I reached that decision.

I gave birth to my daughter during winter break in my second year of grad school, and I went back to school and work when she was seven weeks old. Before she was born, I thought this timing was perfect because I didn’t have to take any time off from school. I only had one semester of classes and teaching left, and then all I had to do was write my thesis. I had visions of a newborn who would sleep all the time and wouldn’t require any maintenance other than nursing and diaper changes. By the time she became aware and awake enough to know where mommy was, I would be done with classes and home with her while writing my thesis during her naps.

That’s how I imagined it, but that’s not how it happened. Our wonderful daughter was not the sleepy angel I’d expected, but a colicky screaming mess who cried nonstop unless she was being held and bounced a specific way. I was exhausted from being on my own with her for most of the week because my husband’s job only allows him to be home on weekends. He told me to take the semester off. I wanted to do that more than anything, but I knew that if I took a leave of absence, I would never go back. I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to finish my degree, but I knew that I didn’t have enough mental capacity in that current state to make an informed decision.

So I went back to school even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I took my baby to daycare where she cried all day and never slept because she could only sleep while being held. I went to classes and taught and pumped breastmilk in my office and in the lab and in my car. I held baby girl for hours while she cried every night, and stayed up until 4 am doing homework.  My brain was so slow from tiredness that I couldn’t add 5+7 without a calculator.

This was the only way she would sleep.

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