Suburban Snapshots

If They Think My Kid's Bad, They Should Meet My Dogs

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I want to thank the strangers and passersby who take the time to critique the parenting of others, who care enough to offer helpful suggestions, who make blunt, smug observations of the behavior of children they haven't raised.

Specifically, I want to express my gratitude to the family of five? Six? who glared at us for the duration of their meal at an adjacent table last night, making obvious their displeasure at the boisterousness of our playing three-year-olds.

Anna wasn't on her best public behavior — she was squealing, she refused to keep her damned shoes on, she was hugging and chasing her younger friend around the mostly-empty dining room as I attempted to wrangle her — while we parents had the audacity to try and complete our sentences.

The kids were loud, they were mobile, they were rambunctious — you know, they were kids. I understand that people don't like to be disturbed during a meal out, I hear that, but I also know that there are better methods than our fellow patrons used to request a little peace and quiet.

We all judge, but most people choose to do it silently. Most people observe quietly and complain to their partners out of earshot back in the car. But the parents one table over felt it their moral duty to verbally scold us. And they waited, standing in their group of five (six? I was too busy shoving my daughter's shoes on for the fourth time to take an accurate headcount) as they left. They stood staring, waiting to catch our eyes, hoping for a moment to vent their frustrations directly to people they knew nothing about, to pass judgement on kids they'd spent all of twenty minutes with.

"I had kids, and I never let them behave this way," he sneered at me.
"It was really a bit much," she added.
"OMFG our parents are totally mortifying us right now," said the daughters' faces.

If only that disgruntled father had given me a moment to collect his parenting medal from the bottom of my purse. And the mother, whose children's behavior never pushed those limits of patience that every parent — except she, apparently — is so familiar with.

In the moment I wished I'd had a better comeback, something that would have left them speechless or apologetic. But I didn't, because I knew the kids were loud, I knew I could have done more to contain Anna, and because I was stunned by how deliberate it all was, how condescending. Who does that?

Ironically, even after the running, giggling and general disobedience, it was the behavior of two grown adults that proved to be the most disruptive.

How to Be Broke Like a
Real Person

Sunday, February 19, 2012

During the sixty-five eternities it seemed like we had no money, it felt as though no one else had money either. Every news show and morning magazine had their own 'expert' tips on surviving tough times, with helpful advice like, "Make sure you save at least two months worth of expenses in a back up account." and "Take the yacht on local jaunts instead of Mediterranean cruises."

We'd done all of their suggestions even before things got super tight; we hadn't had full cable for years, we were always on a programmable thermostat and Steve is genetically predisposed to turning lights off and unplugging electronics. The news wasn't telling us anything we didn't already know.

A whole lot of us are still living week to week, so following are actually helpful things I did to stretch our money without resorting to extreme couponing, because fine, maybe all that food in your basement was free, but how much barbecue sauce does one family need?

1. Modify your mortgage. The process was long, frustrating, often redundant, and it knocked our credit down, but in the end it's been worth it. Our monthly payment was reduced by five-hundred dollars when it was all finally over.

2. Barter when you can. I offered my photo or web design skills for perks like landscaping, painting and even a personal chef. Not entirely necessary, but good for networking and the perks made us feel less broke.

3. Trade babysitting with neighbors. We didn't go out much, but if we felt like hitting up happy hour for three-dollar beers, we'd exchange a couple hours here or there with neighbors. They like this arrangement better than us showing up with Anna and drinking all their booze.

4. Don't fear the dent rack. At our grocery store, we have the day-old bread, dented box and can, and "Manager's Special" meat and veggies racks. I'd shop on Thursdays when things were about to turn over and get dollar boxes of cereal, half-off bread and discounted meat, which I'd either cook that night or immediately freeze.

5. Institute pasta/vegetarian night. Once or twice a week dinner was pasta with whatever combination of beans and vegetables I had on hand. I learned from my mom how to make a delicious meal out of almost nothing, it's a skill I rely on not just when we have no cash, but when I'm too damn lazy to go to the grocery store.

6. Use Craigslist/Ebay. About once a month we'd turn over Anna's baby stuff and clean out the basement and garage. I'd pluck things I thought I could sell and make a few extra bucks that way. If you're with the IRS, of course I paid taxes on that income.

7. Second-hand is your friend. We had some really generous friends and family who gave us clothes for Anna, but when I needed to fill in the gaps or wanted to get her a special little treat, I'd check Craigslist or Goodwill. Sometimes I'd find something nice for myself, too.

When your kid gets four million toys she doesn't need at Christmas or birthdays, stash what she won't notice and re-gift for those preschool birthday parties. 

8. Eat your damned leftovers. I hate wasted food in general, and when things are tight I hate it ten times as much. Knowing Steve doesn't love leftovers, I'd re-heat and plate them for him so he wouldn't have the chance to raid the fridge, ignoring the three servings of last night's dinner staring him in the face.

9. Use your neighborhood library. We have a great, amazing library with all kinds of free programs and a huge selection of books. While Steve was out of work he'd spend chilly afternoons there with Anna bumping into neighborhood friends and teaching her about current electrical code.

We'd also spend a dollar for coffee and use the McDonald's indoor Playspace for hours. Germophobes and people who aren't comfortable telling some stranger's feral kid to stop biting should skip this piece of advice.

10. Treat yourself. Being broke sucks balls. It's hard, it puts stress on everyone. So now and then, use some money you shouldn't be using to go out to dinner. Go walk around the mall sipping a nine-dollar coffee, get a manicure, buy new music. Try to think about something besides your bank accounts.

Eventually, things will get better again.

Lies I Tell My Daughter

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Last night as I pulled the meat from a whole roasted chicken and prepared it for the stock pot, Anna walked into the kitchen and scooted her stool up next to me.

From my elbow she asked, "Mama, what's that chicken's name?"

I looked at the chicken for probably a beat too long and said as matter-of-factly as I could — being careful not to betray that as usual, this almost-four-year-old had accidentally hit on one of the parental dilemmas I hadn't quite sorted out yet — "The chickens we eat don't really have names, Baby."

I didn't like my answer or the rest of the sad chicken story that I didn't tell her. I didn't tell her that our dinner used to look just like the chick we'd watched starting to hatch on a friend's YouTube video.

Kids have this beautiful, accidental wisdom. In between their unrelenting and arbitrary "Why?"s, there are the questions asked in the purest, most innocent way that force parents to really have to think, to come up with an answer we hadn't even thought to prepare.

Over the summer my five-year-old niece was visiting. With no context, in the midst of baking cookies or eating mac and cheese she asked, "Aunt Bren, when you're in love with somebody that means you broke their heart, right?" I cleared the lump in my throat with a hard swallow and said that yes, sometimes it does mean exactly that.

After our dog died, we didn't bother to correct Anna's assumption that Stella was actually recovering at the vet's office. She'd occasionally ask when Stella would be home and finally, without using The D Word, I told her that Stella could never come home. Despite further elaborations on dog heaven, she'll still ask, and I still won't really tell her.

Eventually she'll learn about the origins of dinner meat, she'll have a broken heart and she'll break one, she'll understand that there's no chance of her sweet, scruffy dog finding her way back to our door. As she grows I'll try to find the answers she needs. I'll fail more than a few times.

For now though I'll lie to her, and let her live in her own sweet world of gentler truths.