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“Are you in a pantry?” My Office during COVID Quarantine

This essay on my quarantine office was originally published on Medium.com

Because when we built the house, the room behind the kitchen represented the structure’s fulcrum,

Because I became enamored with the bright layout in a design magazine (or maybe it was Pinterest or Housz) representing a bespoke moment of well-rendered functionality, a desktop that at first glance was no more than a continuation of the kitchen’s long, white, marble counter,

jeanne-blasberg-office-covid-isolation-workspace-pantry-work-from-homeBecause a workspace in the pantry was domestic aspiration, enabling a seamless glide between ideas on my laptop and soup simmering on the stove,

Because it would house the coffee and espresso makers and a cute little appliance that froths milk, drawing in family members through morning ritual, with an inevitable good morning to me,

Because in an empty nest, the hum of a refrigerator and the dog lapping from his water bowl make a comforting soundtrack by which to work,

Because a pantry doesn’t take itself too seriously, messy with shopping lists and unread mail, and old photos of the kids jumping from boats,

Because this would be a summer house where we lived on fresh veggies and seafood, because we ate out with friends, and the pantry shelves were another luxury, haphazardly stocked with tea and candied ginger and nectar for the hummingbird feeder.

But on the vernal equinox, March 21, 2020, this summer place would become our port in the storm and the pantry would become command central.jeanne-blasberg-office-covid-isolation-workspace-kitchen-pantry-work-from-home

And the adult children would return to fill more than coffee mugs, looking to me and my pantry for three square, that would make five adult appetites folks, fifteen meals per day plus snacks going on eighteen weeks now.

And in my daughter’s despair she expressed a desire to adopt a puppy, and I said “okay,” and that it would make the most sense to contain this little creature at my feet, in the pantry,

And before I mastered virtual backgrounds, people I met with on Zoom would ask, “Are you in a pantry? Please mute yourself.”

And I would provision the pantry shelves with military precision, but also guard them…

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Reopening (Our Hearts) After COVID

This post was originally published on Medium.com.

 

My children are my best teachers. Having been in quarantine, in isolation, and cohabitating with them now for what is going on four months, I truly appreciate their perspective and ability to suspend judgment over what has been a very difficult period. My son was quick to evoke “The Parable of the Horse” early on and it has been a good reminder as we have moved forward, doing our best with what life is handing us.

The old Taoist story goes something like this:

An old farmer worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” said the farmer.

The lesson is that assigning meaning to everything that happens to us just invites suffering. It’s better to suspend judgment until we know (that’s assuming we’ll ever really know) what there really is to be thankful for and what is inconsequential.

Sometime in March, while my sons were abandoning their apartments and offices and my daughter was leaving her college campus, I heard Bill Gates say that he believed there was a spiritual reason in the universe for why things unfold as they do. That made me pause. I wouldn’t have expected a statement like that to come from him…

 

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The Life-Changing Art of Letting Go: A Midlife Reckoning with my Stuff

This essay was originally published on Zibby Owens’ We Found Time.

I once took a class in the art of memoir where the assignment was to write about an object and its meaning. I bristled at the prompt. Objects are only objects, I told myself, and imbuing them with meaning was materialistic and shallow. It was akin to idolatry, which is against my religion, by the way. Besides, I was a mom trying to keep up with the stream of macaroni art, woodshop creations, and paper-maché coming through the door.

Eschewing sentimentality, I had been known to sweep entire table tops of clutter into garbage bags. Oh sure, I’d hang my children’s masterpieces on the refrigerator for the requisite number of weeks, but they’d eventually get sent to the circular file…wink wink.

In hindsight, I’ve realized that curation is a luxury for late middle-age, when the kids are out of the house and the mind is quiet. In my thirties and forties I’d vacillate between two extremes, either going on a rampage of throwing things away or pasting mementos from obvious milestones into albums. Now in my fifties, I fear I memorialized the wrong things and tossed the right ones. What I wouldn’t give for more samples of my kids’ poetry or handwriting. I wish I had recorded the peal of their laughter, their voices in the backseat of the car, the knock-knock jokes, the potty humor.

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Pass the Vegan Meatloaf: Navigating Thanksgiving Traditions

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning if you decide to make a purchase through one of these links, I may make a small commission (at no additional cost to you), which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

jeanne-blasberg-thanksgiving-turkeyIn Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, We Are the Weather, he reports that “Ninety-six percent of American families gather for a Thanksgiving meal. That is higher than the percentage of Americans who brush their teeth every day, have read a book in the last year, or have ever left the state in which they were born.  It is almost certainly the broadest collective action… in which Americans partake… forty-six million turkeys are consumed on the third Thursday in November every year.” Although Foer goes on to make a larger point about what makes a movement, I use his findings to emphasize something about the holiday menu: turkey is Thanksgiving. 

Dietary changes in our family mean that a majority of us now adhere to vegetarian or vegan regimens. So, in an effort to provide something for everyone, my husband suggested a vegan option this year.  He asked one son to make the mashed potatoes, one son to make the squash casserole, our daughter to make the Brussel sprouts, he’d stuff and roast the bird, and when it came to my assignment (and I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly) he said  something about a vegan meatloaf.

“What? Read me the recipe,” I said from the couch, where I was steeped in a novel.

Everyone was listening as he put on his reading glasses and listed the ingredients: tofu, lentils, oats, ketchup, mustard, soy sauce….

jeanne-blasberg-family-thanksgiving-traditions-turkey-vegan-meatloafNow let me say, that while my husband was the one to suggest this addition, it seemed I would be the one making it, the one to go down in infamy. (read: Mom always takes blame)  John’s dad had reminded me of this fact only earlier that day. Despite his battling the same heart disease that plagues all the men in his family, that very morning we were making plans for his 92nd birthday party at his favorite Chinese restaurant. 

 “When you call to make the reservation,” he had said to my husband. “Make sure you let them know about Jeannie’s dietary issues.” 

You might think his mentioning “my” dietary issues as a sign of his concern and  thoughtfulness, but in it I heard the reminder that for the past thirty years I’ve been the one imposing all brands of “picky eating” on his poor son. 

As John handed me the instructions for the vegan meatloaf,  I cleared my throat. “No way.”

“What?”

 “I am making the executive decision to nix the vegan meatloaf.”  The reason I gave had something to do with keeping it simple, but there was also something of not wanting to be the spoiler mixed in there too.  What Foer writes about is real – the Thanksgiving meal is like a heavy, warm blanket. Even for vegans, a proper Thanksgiving buffet provides a certain visual that is comforting. I knew vegan meatloaf on the Thanksgiving table would not be like an orange on a the Seder plate – rather it sounded like the punchline to a stupid joke. 

As a mom (and a daughter-in-law entrusted with the meal),  it has become increasingly clear that the greatest thing I can offer my family, what everyone really craves, is stability and tradition. After the schlepp home, weary from the cruel, cruel world, the Thanksgiving menu does more than fill one’s stomach.  The kids look forward to, and indeed get a boost from our adherence to the prescribed menu. Tradition was hard enough to sustain during the years we lived overseas where finding a turkey was near impossible and we had to assign our eldest son with smuggling Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix and ocean spray cranberry sauce through customs on his way home from boarding school.  Certain staples of our menu are tributes to mothers who are no longer with us. Even the squash rolls take on importance. My father-in-law orders them weeks ahead and stands in line to pick them up at a farm stand on the Cape.

jeanne-blasberg-thanksgiving-dinner-traditionReading the figures in Foer’s book suggests we aren’t the only family clinging to tradition.  Even as we Blasbergs are accepting of change and differences in other aspects of our lives, I was surprisingly suspect of letting change creep onto my Thanksgiving table.  I mean it’s not like we weren’t going to have the turkey too… John just suggested adding a dish. You may accuse me of just wanting to read all afternoon (true), or avoiding the additional dishes that would need to be washed (true), but there was certainly something about the aesthetic of a brown log, and the taste (soy sauce??)…  and the feeling like I didn’t want to risk even one little crack in our tradition. Maybe there was also a tinge of that fear that since my children have all left home there might be a time when they don’t return – “she actually made a vegan meatloaf one year.” 

I’m guilty of blowing apart various aspects of my children’s lives, but I’ll draw the line when it comes to Thanksgiving.  Plant-based, low-carb… forget about it or pick around it. God forbid I fall into the category of a family member who once insisted our only stuffing option be gluten-free…  My family has a long memory when it comes to such transgressions and can be pretty unforgiving. No, a vegan meatloaf wasn’t happening on my watch. We vegetarians would survive on side dishes (and a guaranteed late night snack).

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Confessions of a Boarding School Mom: Let Someone Else Play Bad Cop

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

teen-boy-and-girl-by-bonfire-confessions-of-boarding-school-momThe school year may have just begun, but many families are already in the process of thinking about “the next school.” If that consideration includes boarding school, read on. Even though my recent novel, The Nine, portrays a mother’s harrowing experience as her son navigates boarding school, I still believe boarding is worth considering. While scheduling interviews, touring campuses, and filling out applications, there’s an additional data point I’d like to offer.

First, I should say that although we had three children attend three different boarding schools, I wasn’t always keen on letting my children leave home. When my future husband first told me he had attended boarding school, I was surprised. “So what’d you do wrong?” I asked. You see, I attended a large public high school in Southern California and assumed anyone who’d been “sent away” had been a problem child. He explained that a rigorous boarding school outside Boston had been his choice. Twenty years later, boarding would be our children’s choice as well (although none of them would choose my husband’s alma mater.) It was new territory for me, and I had to come to grips with the separation, the distance, and the changes to our relationship.

I’d also have to come to grips with rule books, signing pledges that I would support the policies which could fill up inch-thick tomes.

We’d drop our kids off freshman year, preaching a strict adherence to the various rules. Administrations were notoriously inflexible, and did not accommodate rule bending or extenuating circumstances. And even though our kids heeded our warnings for the most part, there came a time, somewhere toward the end of junior year or the beginning of senior year when my husband and I would suck in our breath each time the phone rang, wondering if our luck had run out.

What had once represented independence as a fourteen year old felt confining once they were eighteen, like cartoon characters with smoke exploding from their ears, I could sense they were also ready to blow. Besides, we’d seen a lot by then — one of our children’s disciplinary hearing, as well as seemingly minor offenses by schoolmates that came with serious consequences. Then there were kids who committed similar offenses but received drastically different punishments. We’d seen administrators with a range of temperaments, and rules broken due to misunderstanding rather any intent to do something wrong. It could feel, often times, inconsistent and confusing.woman-checking-phone-call-from-kids

My stomach would drop, speaking to our sons or daughter on the phone each week as they reported a new crop of disciplinary cases announced at all-school assemblies. So, our mantra became, “If you need to misbehave, come home.” This was an obvious departure from the rules-enforcing parents we’d started out as, but boarding school brought about a shift — a desire to avoid what seemed like the inevitable.

Boarding school turned us into our kid’s cover, creating a sort of good cop, bad cop dynamic. The schools could play the heavy so we didn’t have to, and as such, we found ourselves on the same side of the law as our children. While this required walking a fine line, there were definite upsides to our relationships with our kids. They would confide in us more because we weren’t the ones coming down with the blanket rules. Of course we were busy setting other expectations, but when it came to curfews, parties, or spending time with the opposite sex, we were now viewed as reasonable. Imagine that!

parenting-teen-boy-boarding-schoolThere are certain times in a child’s life when you want to lock them in a padded room for about six months– sort of like when they are learning to walk and every sharp-edged piece of furniture is an opportunity to take an eye out. The end of high school years felt like that for me. Why do the stakes have to feel so high!?!

This parenting dynamic isn’t one that’s often talked about openly — who wants to admit to being permissive, to being lenient? Then again, who wants to be the enforcer for four straight years? I can’t say being their ally was optimal; and it was hard to shift gears into disciplinarian during the summer months, but boarding school may have improved our relationships with our children. Their schools were more strict than we could ever be, and we were glad not to be in the position of policing their every move. Relieved of that duty, we could talk to them like the adults they were blossoming into, about making choices, accepting consequences, and the benefits of healthy behavior. It might seem like a slim silver lining, but as my kids have grown into young adults they know they can always confide in us and we will respond with reason.

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The Kids, The Parents, and The Campus

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

backpackWhen parents of teens gather, the conversation offer turns to what’s going on with the kids, which schools they attend or have attended. I’m not bringing this up to bash parents for being “too involved” or pile on more evidence that an admissions-driven obsession is dragging our culture into cheating scandals and worse. Rather, I believe the majority of parental chatter is in the vein of seeking solace, a sympathetic ear, the relief of sharing war stories, maybe finding humor.

Because my husband and I have three adult children who survived the college process and attended three different high schools, we’re often asked for advice. We’ve been through it: from a child dealing with the disciplinary committee at boarding school to one who inadvertently filled out all the wrong bubbles on the SAT answer sheet. From athletic recruiting myths to failing driving tests, to searching for tutors, we commiserate over the roller coaster ride and the gray hairs it’s given us. We are asked how we handled a host of things, but most of the questions revolve around the schools. Which schools were we most impressed with and, if we had it to do over again, which schools would we be drawn to?

teen-boy-student-studying-aloneI’ve learned that many of the things we aspire to for our children, ourselves even, never quite live up to all the allure. Even with the “best” schools, it’s wise to approach them with a ‘roses and thorns” attitude. Over time, beautiful campuses lose their luster, weak links in the faculty are exposed, and the leadership proves less than perfect.

Campuses are, after all, microcosms, concentrates of society set apart from the real world. Unfortunately, the characters in charge have been guilty of covering up scandal over the years in an effort to keep up the mystique and prestige. The result has been damaged young lives. Although most of the sexual misconduct that’s recently been exposed happened decades ago, it’s naïve to assume such behavior has ceased altogether. What’s more, attention to these revelations has been blurred among the many discredited institutions in the news. Our nation is experiencing record disillusionment with regard to big business, the military, the federal government, the church, local police forces, health care. The question isn’t so much how we stomach the scandals at our nation’s illustrious schools, but how are we stomaching all of it?

teen-boys-skateboard-outside-schoolThe exposure and re-hashing of wrong-doing is painful but necessary. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team shining a light on pedophiles and their victims at New England private schools was the beginning of a recovery, just as it was for the Catholic Church reeling from the crimes committed by priests. The #MeToo movement that is shaking business and government is disappointing to witness, but is the only way to usher in a new standard. We’ve been living through a void in leadership on many fronts, but I have confidence in the next generation. Upcoming leaders have been raised with intolerance for bad behavior and insistence on transparency and accountability. In the digital age there will be no more secrets and no more ivory towers. The reckoning has come and I’m optimistic that once the shake out is over, the schools, along with the rest of our integral institutions, will be better for it.

So, my advice to younger parents is to approach educational choices with a good dose of realism. A school and its reputation are not going to provide your child with the golden ticket to anything. That’s the marketing we’ve swallowed for many years. Hannah Webber, the mother and main character in my recently released novel, The Nine (She Writes Press, August 2019), gushes over her only son’s acceptance to a prestigious academy. The novel is a commentary on her parenting “tragedy”, her shattered dreams, her ivy-league plans dashed. Hannah puts so much faith in a brand name education being the answer, readers can’t help but sense the disappointment lurking on the horizon.

girl-student-studying-aloneWhen our eldest child was an adolescent, I may have resembled Hannah Webber (just a little). The advice I now give, however, the entire message behind the The Nine in fact, is tempered with perspective and a touch of heartache. It’s not the choices you make as a parent that are most important, but the reasons you make them. Practice acceptance, forgiveness, and love with your children (and yourself as well). Schools won’t be perfect and neither will our children. And as you must be aware if you’ve been at this a while, as parents, we are the most imperfect of all.

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Let Them Make Mistakes: Parenting Teens in the 21st Century

parenting-teens-in-the-21st-century-let-them-make-mistakes-jeanne-blasberg

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

The best medicine I found for easing the anxiety of parenting boundary-pushing teenagers was remembering my own risky behavior at their age.…

“One of you has got to call your parents,” said the officer at the Palm Springs police department. We’d been rounded up and taken in when the party we were hoping to attend spilled out into the street. We were all underage but the other kids we knew had parents or grandparents in town, or at least adults who would vouch for them. Jessie, Tina, Sarah, and I, however, had driven to the desert on a lark. FOMO wasn’t an acronym in 1982, but we had a bad case of it. Everyone who was anyone at Newport Harbor High was spending spring break in Palm Springs, a place I had never been before, having recently transplanted from suburban New York.

A totally unstructured April vacation was the culprit. Four girls left alone with nothing to do. The week stretched out in front of us and after way too much daytime TV, we spent Thursday at Disneyland, going not for the typical reasons, but to make mischief. We’d jump off the Snow White ride inside the dark tunnel and try to dislodge as many poisoned apples as possible. We’d scare little kids and their parents in the process, sometimes hopping onto unsuspecting laps in order to dodge security guards. Eventually bored with Snow White, we took over a table at the snack bar and started flinging ketchup-laden French fries at each other, concocting a new plan.

“We can take my car,” Jessie said.

“We can sleep on a golf course,” said Sarah.

teen-girls-laughing-on-car-road-tripSo, I told my parents I’d be spending the night at Tina’s, and the others told similar lies. We packed bathing suits, hairbrushes and makeup and set off on the two-hour drive to Palm Springs. Despite the care we took making up our faces and curling our hair, five hours later, after a brief thirty minutes at the party, we were loaded into a paddy wagon.

I drew the short straw, and picked up the receiver to call my parents at the officer’s request. My father answered, fuming when I told him that I was with three friends at the Palm Springs police department and asked if he could come get us. After a few moments of stunned disbelief, he let me have it. I held the receiver a distance from my ear, shaking my head in my friends’ direction. “Not happening anytime soon.” I announced, hanging up.

Jessie called her mom next. Instead of grimacing like I had, she continued in a soft voice. After a little bit of explanation, she actually started giving her mother directions to the station. She even hung up with a smile. Maybe it was bad luck that my father answered the phone, but I couldn’t imagine my mother taking the news any better.

Jessie’s mom, Jane, however, arrived several hours later, announcing that since it was Friday and we already in Palm Springs, we might as well make a weekend of it. Hoots of delight erupted from the back seat as she pulled away from the curb. I went along with the enthusiasm, all the while anticipating the fallout when I next called my father, “Good news! I’m out of jail, but I’ll be hanging out at the Desert Marriott for a few more days.” He was going to have lots of time to stew over my punishment.

At the hotel, we put on our bikinis then found chaises poolside, aiming to recover from our missed night’s sleep. Jane took time primping in the room before appearing on the pool deck in high heels, a cover-up, and movie-star sunglasses. She distanced herself from us a bit, finding a chaise by the poolside bar.

teen-girl-alone-looking-for-friends-in-desertWhen I woke up, I had a blistering sunburn on my back and Jane had scored a dinner date with a guy named Bill. She’d end up spending all of Sunday with him as well. The romance continued and not long after, back in our beach town, Bill would become Jessie’s stepfather.

A few months later, as the sting of being permanently grounded was fading, I mentioned the pending nuptials to my father over dinner. I chuckled that the “weekend in Palm Springs” had a silver lining after all. He shook his head and muttered something between bites about getting me out of there, about the type of friends I was making.

He should have given me more credit. He should have known that I understood sneaking off to Palm Springs was a bad idea. New to the school and desperate for friends, I remember weighing the pros and cons and deciding to go anyway. I hadn’t enjoyed the weekend at the Marriott, knowing how upset my parents were at home. I learned that I never wanted to go to jail again or suffer my father’s disappointment. I would think for a long time about his response to my phone call as well as Jane’s, and even as a sixteen- year-old, was determined to land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum if I had kids someday.

teen-boys-laughing-on-mountainI’ve never caught my kids in that type of lie, but we’ve had our moments. As parents, we can make ourselves crazy trying to prevent bad behavior entirely. The important thing to impart on our children is that while dumb choices are inevitable, so are the consequences. I miss the days when kids had space to make their own choices, good and bad, to learn what it feels like to make a mistake. Unfortunately, unlike in 1982, today’s parents operate under the assumption their kids can’t afford to make any mistakes at all. I don’t know how our culture adopted this zero-tolerance policy, but I don’t agree with it. It might be one of the scarier tests of parenting faith, but humans on the verge of adulthood need to test limits. My parents may have gotten mad as hell, but at least they let me screw up, and in its own weird way, that was a meaningful demonstration of love too.

Student's bikes on a snowy campus day.

The Price of a College Admission Scandal

I had to pull my  jaw off the floor reading the recent reports of parents and college admissions consultants gaming the system. Even though the college admissions process has never been ‘fair,’ the hacks these people created stooped to a whole new level. I should qualify this post with the fact that as a fourth generation applicant to Smith College, I was a beneficiary of the uneven playing field myself.  Even though I was admitted to equally fine institutions, I attended Smith as a legacy. What’s more, all three of my children were recruited athletes to Ivy League institutions, competing in squash, and leading and captaining their respective college teams.  Although they were qualified candidates, the ability to bypass the general application pool was an enormous boon. These schools admit about 220 recruited athletes per year across all sports whereas the general application pool is flooded with upwards of 30,000 people. Tough odds for even the best of the best.

As in life, systemic privilege has always existed with college admissions, although typically more subtly, reserved for those in the know, those tipped off early as to how the game works. (I’ll go ahead and throw myself in that group.)  The parents who worked with “The Key,” however,  were made aware of a “side door,” and did whatever it took to gain entrance at the eleventh hour.  It was like a big, bad case of cutting in the carpool line. The transcripts included in the indictment depict parents who had no problem with the six-digit price tag for an admissible test score, on the condition their children were none the wiser, as if betraying a child’s trust was fine as long as it went undiscovered. One father even laughed at his child innocently assuming he’d achieved a good ACT score on his own.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nine, Hannah Webber is a middle class mother who prescribes to the slow and steady approach (much like mine): nightly dinners, homework sessions, attendance at sports practice, healthy breakfasts, school pick-ups and drop-offs or at least a best effort.  There is mundanity to the routine, a year-in-year-out scheduling of parent-teacher conferences, supporting kids through ups and downs, but always emphasizing hard work and doing one’s best above all else.  Consistency. Trust. Listening.  It isn’t always easy. And again, probably speaks to the privilege of a childhood where a parent is at home to provide the steady support. But just like many parents today, Hannah Webber will realize even her best efforts aren’t enough when pitted against parents with money.

Privilege is pervasive in reality as well as fiction, but the recent revelation of cheating has provided our culture with a moment – not only to gawk at the defendants’ insane behavior, but to evaluate the status quo and the spectrum of admissions abuses: how donations to schools are treated, why athletics and athletes should matter so much, how unlimited test taking time and bogus doctor diagnoses has become a thing.  It’s an important conversation, but I hope the point that hits home the hardest for parents (including Hannah Webber) is that integrity, honesty, and a relationship with their children built on trust will always be worth more than any diploma!!

 

Jeanne M. Blasberg, author of "Eden", and friends at book club

Book Club: It’s Okay if You Don’t Discuss the Book

The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.

And that’s okay.

When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.

The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.

Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.

It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.

Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.

Competitive Parenting

Competitive Parenting: No One Wins

The following article was originally published on GrownandFlown.com.

It’s not like a gymnastics competition where the judges hold up scores at the end of a floor routine. It’s not like you can “stick the landing” either. It’s not like the announcement comes over the PA system: “A perfect 10! She’s achieved the perfect 10!”  No, a mother doesn’t stand on a podium, beaming at the end of the day, while the grand maternal order of the universe hangs a gold medal from her neck, declaring her the best of all time.

Hey, I’ll admit I played. Big time. This is a confessional and I was all in. I remember one year-end Prize Day when my kids all won the highest academic honors for their respective grades (I think my youngest was in Kindergarten, but hey) and a rival mother with four brilliant children passed me filing out of the assembly and whispered, “Three for three, I’m impressed.”

It’s embarrassing, and shameful but I’m just warning you once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

I’ve spent time reflecting on this (written a novel in fact) and am going to open the kimono a little further here to share some of why I fell prey. And since everything gets blamed on mothers, I’ll blame this one on mine. But really, as the only child of an alcoholic, dysfunctional marriage, my role in that happy little threesome was to put on a good face, achieve plenty and show the world everything was really okay. Not just okay, super! It took a long time to let the role of chief marketing officer go.

What was less unique to me and more of a universal experience, I believe, was choosing to be a stay at home mom in an era when many of my female friends were remaining in the workforce. After ten years of holding interesting and upwardly mobile positions in finance and retail, I decided to stay home after the birth of my youngest. Three babies in 60 months, just like clockwork, back then I was still trying to win points for Harvard Business School honed efficiency. I tried to do it all and be it all for a while, but that was a recipe for disaster. (See previous paragraph referring to alcoholic family). But in the recesses of my personality I still needed to prove that staying home was the right decision. Of course, I knew in my heart it was the right decision for me, but still, I needed to manifest that sentiment to the world. In the absence of semi-annual performance reviews, my children’s report cards were my tangible affirmation.

No matter how you ended up playing this insane version of Monopoly, when you find yourself tsk-tsking the foibles of other children, most likely children of parents who are not as committed/dedicated/present as you are, just stop. No matter how well you follow the rules, all children stumble, they all fall, they all feel pain, and from time to time, they all lose their way. When mine (now young adults) eventually had their moments, large and small, I felt shame over the superior air I’d taken. I’d been an asshole, not just strutting out of year end assemblies, but at the bus stop. Daily.  (And yes, I promise that I’m working on an epic article about the Beacon Hill bus stop!)

Don’t become the mother I recently spoke to who hired a consultant to help her college junior get a better internship. Get it under control now or you’ll be competing over whose child makes more money, who marries better, who produces more grandchildren. JUST STOP.

Your child’s mental health and happiness is the most important thing. Turn your hovering energy inward, discover your own passion and invest time in whatever friendships you still have. If I could do it, so can you.