By: Julie Gamberg
I spent years teaching in very tough inner-city schools, and I prided myself on my great teaching, especially my strong classroom management skills. I could take a group of kids who perhaps hadn’t had breakfast, or even dinner the night before, who had somewhat or very unstable home lives, who may have had drug-addicted or prostituted parents — kids who did not come to school ready to sit down, listen and learn — and create a sense of structure, and order. I could make the day feel “safe”and contained. How did I do this? Through the use of a tough, disciplinarian, take-no-prisoners style…one which was very common in the schools I taught in and which involved creating “rewards” with charts on the board and/or a clipboard, and acknowledging and lavishly praising wanted behavior while immediately punishing – with things such as time-outs and loss of privileges – unwanted behavior. There were also promises of future reward and punishments, such as ten minutes’ free playtime, or a withheld part of recess, based on behavior. These “consequences” were applied consistently, compassionately and extremely firmly, with no “wiggle room” which might have allowed for the child’s “manipulation” of me or the situation.
Parents of my students would sometimes ask me to teach them these techniques, so they could “try to get control” of their kids at home. I was thought of as something of a parenting “expert”, although in truth the techniques I was teaching and using were in no way creative, fresh, original, or hard to come by. Parents, if you really want to apply these techniques, you do not need to look very far, and you don’t need to work very hard. They are easy to use and they are ubiquitous. They are, for starters, in every playbook of every mediocre classroom teacher I know of. They are the worst of what a “great” teacher does, and the only thing keeping a bad teacher from a classroom of complete insanity. But they are nothing to be proud of. Although I know on our hardest days it doesn’t always feel like it, controlling kids is ultimately pretty easy. After all, until they become old enough, we can simply manhandle them if we want to. We’re bigger, we’re stronger, and we know a lot more about how the world works. We feed, clothe, and shelter them. They love and worship us. They are completely at our mercy. Being mean to kids in the name of creating order is not a hard feat. Being a little bit mean is also pretty darn easy. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are not being mean, just “firm,” yet even this is relatively easy.
The hard stuff begins when we decide that parenting with control, manipulation, rewards, and punishments, will no longer be in our own parenting playbooks. Letting go of those “tried and true” workaday “solutions” to the behavior of our littles that most troubles us, and seeking to raise our children through connection, listening, empathy, reasonable limits, and yes, some reading, some talking, and some hard work on our end…that is where our highest calling as parents begins.
As I began to come into my own in the classroom, I felt proud of my teaching accomplishments – I could keep a group of kids quiet, in their seat, and for the most part engaged, and happy to be there. I had good relationships with my students. However, something nagged at me. The part of my day that involved classroom management in a very authoritative style (a lot of the day) – one I slowly came to see as downright draconian – always felt…not right. These children were not seals-in-training. They were complex human beings with an array of emotional needs and wants which were going totally unmet. The only acceptable behavior in the classroom was my way. I began to think about alternatives, but really couldn’t envision managing so many children with such diverse and divergent needs, any other way. I think my crisis of thought at that moment – the fact that I simply could not see or envision another way – reminds me of the crisis of thought I hear from parents now. They feel, in their bones, that they want to parent another way, but on a practical, day-to-day level, they just don’t see how it can be managed.
During my last year of teaching, I was lucky enough to be at a small, inner-city public school, which was supplementally funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. The school attracted extraordinary teachers, and for the first time in my life, I began to see (some) teachers who were managing their classrooms without a reward chart, and without explicit punishments and consequences. These teachers leveraged their relationships with the students and the class, to figure out together how to solve any problems they encountered. They worked on building their students’ problem-solving capacity, and gently helped children communicate with one another, and discuss and solve their issues together. I realized, with no small amount of shame, that while I was giving my students “good days” at school –and, through external force, giving them an example of what managing their behavior might feel like –as well as warmth, support, and education, these teachers were going a million miles beyond that. Their students were developing communication, negotiation, conflict-resolution and self-regulation skills that would last them a lifetime. They were gaining confidence and mastery while finding intrinsic motivation and a love of learning. They were seeing a model of problem-solving based on caring, empathy, listening and working together, rather than discipline, fear, and control.
Although I was leaving K-12 teaching, it became clear that this was altogether a better method. Whereas I was working toward being a “great” teacher by the old playbook, these teachers were in a different league altogether. A friend who went to a prestigious law school once told me how brilliant and important he felt in high school and college, and then how dumb and inconsequential he felt when he got to law school. It is a humbling moment to realize that as much as you think you are doing, there is someone doing so much more and, more importantly, to realize that is who you would prefer to be.
I took these lessons into parenting. I vowed that if these teachers, and others, could do these amazing things with a huge group of students who came to school facing enormous obstacles to learning and socializing, then I could surely do that much and more with my one, or two, or three children who would have had (if they were hungry) dinner the night before, and breakfast in the morning, and who would be free from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and who would have a stable and consistent environment. I vowed to read, and join online lists, and talk to other parents, and watch and ask about good parenting when I saw it, and do the work that these amazing teachers did, so that I could give that experience to my child.
I am glad to have had so much teaching experience going into parenting. I know it has helped in many ways. Of course it would have helped so much more had I learned about these progressive and effective teaching philosophies while I was still able to practice implementing them. But ultimately parenting is very different than teaching. It is so much easier in that I have control over all of the variables, so I can stack the deck enormously in my favor. And it is so much harder because it’s 24-7. So far, I’ve found challenges that far surpass those of teaching. Such as having a colicky baby –requiring me to push at the boundaries of human exhaustion to care for her, or dealing with a full-blown tantrum over not being able to play with my cell phone. But I am grateful that in all of the hard and complicated moments, there is no part of me that has longed to return to the draconian days of “if you don’t x, I’m going to y”, “good job -you get a star!”, “time out!”, or any other methods of top-down authoritarian control that were such an important part of my arsenal as an urban educator. Mostly, I’m so glad that I’m able to deal with problems that come up without being mean. To all of the kids to whom I’ve been mean in the past: I wish I had known better. And to all of the kids who I will know in the future: I hope I’m always able to offer guidance and maintain limits without being mean. Because I have no excuse. I know better now.
By: Sheana Ochoa
Being a new mom, anyone would guess my life has undergone a tremendous transformation, which in my case was compounded by the fact that I became ill post partum. Consequently my son and I were exiled (as I saw it) to the central valley so my family could help me with the baby. After spending a year and a half in the armpit of California, I was able to return to Los Angeles and resume/begin life.
Leaving LA on the eve of momdom, I entered a kind of limbo. And now, just five months back in LA, I’m realizing how different life with a child is from my previous life as a single, itinerant feminist circuiting LA in her Jeep Wrangler. Turning in the Jeep after its lease expired was excruciating for me. I kept re-leasing new Jeeps every three years and enjoyed the privilege. But Jeeps aren’t safe so it was the first thing that had to go.
The roommate I always had in order to have extra cash flow also had to go. The baby needed a nursery. And now I had to budget for diapers instead of mani-pedis. When we returned to LA, we relocated into a new neighborhood (more working-class, less hip) so I could stroll my son to daycare three blocks away.
So, a lot has changed. But mostly, I’m just so intrigued by this little angel/devil living in my house. Everyday there’s something new: a new word, a new gesture, a new expression, a new detail he notices. Before my son, life didn’t have such newness. I tried to be aware and appreciate life, but that task is so much easier with a child who is seeing and doing everything for the first time. Through the eyes of my son, I have been given a second childhood. In three weeks we get to celebrate his second birthday in our own home. I can’t imagine a better gift.
By: Craig Zagurski
August is LOVE month here at TNF, and while there are many wonderful flavors of LOVE, my mind is wired to go straight to ROMANTIC LOVE. Not a bad place to go, however, when 10 continuous years of RL come to a fiery stop. RL now tends to conjure up feelings of jadedness with a dash of melancholy.
It doesn’t feel permanent nor is there much suffering involved. I’ve simply upgraded my armor. My heart feels like it’s wearing a non-lubricated Trojan–it still throbs and is capable of feeling warmth, but there’s noticeable friction and the odds are slim it will produce anything that will require follow-up.
My divorce is rather unconventional. We share goodbye hugs that seem to last longer than the visit. Every now and then we send text messages to each other rehashing a sweet memory or sharing an anecdote only the other will appreciate. We poke fun at each other about our differences and the mistakes we made. We check in regularly about how we’re holding up on our own, emotionally, and discuss our observations about the many phases we’re going through as we work to regain our footing. We celebrate each other on our birthdays and Mother’s/Father’s Days. She still sometimes takes my breath away when I see her in a new dress or with a new hairstyle. And since we share two little miracles together, she and I will always remain family.
We also catch ourselves slipping into an old, corny inside joke that is now just received with a courtesy grin and a look to the ground…followed by awkward silence.
This month, for me, marks the first August in 11 years that I will not be married nor have an anniversary to celebrate, and yet, I’m happier now and more fulfilled than I’ve been in years. I still LOVE, dearly, the woman who was my wife. She still LOVEs me, dearly. It’s a comfortable and familiar LOVE. An unbreakable LOVE that is outliving the institution of our broken marriage. For that, I am very blessed.
Happy Anniversary, honey.
By: Julie Gamberg
No sooner did I write about the sometimes cluelessness of partnered families toward single parent families, then I got an email from a fellow single mom by choice that seemed just as clueless, with clueless gravy on top. Clueless in the let’s-give-each-other-some-mutual-support way (or, more accurately, let’s not). And a little bit bitter. And maybe little bit sanctimonious? And I thought, do I sound like that? Bitter or sanctimonious about doing it on my own.
I’ve never met this mom, but she’s part of a small group of moms who have been trying to find a time to meet in person. She invited people to her house, which is a bit of a drive for most of the group, at 11:30 a.m. and I wrote back that my little one tends to go down around 12:30 or 1, so perhaps we could meet a bit earlier?
No, she wrote.
And then, perhaps forgetting that I had written her after she introduced herself with details of her circumstances when our little group first “met” by email, to tell her that I was a single mom by choice too! Who works full-time too! (Kind of a “Hello! Be my friend!” to which she did not respond), further response to my time change request read: “As a single mom who works FT, my son has never had the luxury of a strictly followed regimen… naps sometimes get delayed or skipped.” Ouch.
Luxury of naps? So bourgeois! Like meals. Or sleeping at night. Or having a poopy diaper changed. Those middle class American urbanites who really have it rough have to forgo the petty indulgences that most of us take for granted. They keep their babies up when tired!
Another mom who was copied on the email pointed out to me that the nap delayer/skipper had previously said she is feeling overwhelmed. This other mom is a kind, kind woman who makes me feel like a baby-eating troll.
I analyze my feelings about the nap delayer/skipper and I think about how we are sometimes repelled by those who are needing an extra lot of help. There is a mean part of my brain that thinks: I guess you shouldn’t have had a child if you couldn’t take care of him! And then I think of when my little one was outrageously colicky in her first few months and how thoroughly drowning I was, and how rough that was on those closest to me.
And that leads me to, of course, think of wilderness survival stories.
In wilderness survival stories there is always a pragmatist who wants to withhold the food and water from the already dying and reserve it for those-who-could-possibly-make-it. And then there is always a softie who sneaks the dying some water, some comforting pain relief instead of keeping it for the poor sod who needs to have his broken bone reset with just a jagged stone as a knife and a bare branch to bite into.
I generally think of myself as the softy in that situation – the one who can’t bear to see immediate suffering in the hopes of averting some future suffering which may or may not come to pass. But maybe I’m the pragmatist. The one who says buck up sister … we’re all in the same woods and if I can make it without water – me who adores water, well then surely you can trudge along too. If I can figure out how to get my fussy, fussy little one down for her much needed sleep … well you get the idea. I seem to be the obnoxious just-in-case water hoarder.
And I also realize that in the same way you can’t stick two seven-year-olds together and claim that since both are kids they will surely become fast friends, just finding other women who have chosen to have children on their own does not ensure that I am suddenly in gracious, tolerant company. Or, for that matter, that I am gracious, tolerant company.
By: Sheana Ochoa
When I discovered I was pregnant one of my major concerns was how I was going to integrate my dog of twelve years into what I knew would be an all-consuming, twenty-four-seven, new life. Throughout the years, Chloe had trudged with me through my battles with depression, addiction, chronic illness; she’d been with me through two major relationships and their subsequent breakups, and while the men came and went, she remained steadfast, as dogs do.
This time there would be no man to contend with because I chose to have a baby on my own, but Chloe was still going to have to adjust to a love interest other than her. All through the first trimester of pregnancy, hunkered over the toilet with morning sickness (which is a misnomer; I was attached to that toilet day and night), Chloe would curl up on the bath mat like a silent Buddha assuring me, “this too shall pass.”
Once I started feeling better I shifted into high gear preparing for the baby. I tuned into pregnancy podcasts, went to meetings with other choice moms, took prenatal yoga, became CPR certified, met with a lactation consultant, and read every book out there on pregnancy and parenting. One day I came home with my color chart and headed straight to the nursery, when I realized something was wrong. Chloe hadn’t come to greet me with her usual booty-shaking-I-missed-you-so much dance. I found her in my room asleep on the bed. Instead of wondering what might be wrong with her, my first thought was on my baby. I had weighed the pros and cons of cosleeping with my baby and decided it would be a good idea as I planned to breastfeed. Chloe was going to have to get used to a doggy bed.
In retrospect I should have questioned Chloe’s stark change of behavior. When does a dog not bolt to greet you when you get home? But when I saw her sleeping in the bed I only thought about how hard it would be to retrain her. She and I had been sharing my bed since she was a pup; we actually spooned, her backside curled into my belly, her long legs sprawled in front of her, my arms extended so my hands could cup her paws. In the end it only took a week for her to get used to her doggy bed, a little too used to it.
Towards the end of my pregnancy, with Braxton Hicks and swollen ankles, I spent evenings with my legs elevated watching movies. I would bring Chloe’s doggy bed out to the living room so she could sprawl out. Sometimes I would call her up onto the couch to join me, but she ignored me. Did she know a baby was coming, or had I just neglected her so much she was getting used to the lack of attention? One day I walked into my room, full-bellied, arms loaded with shopping bags of baby gear, which I dropped, letting plop onto the floor with a loud thump. Chloe suddenly stood to attention; that’s when I realized she had gone deaf. She hadn’t been greeting me because she couldn’t hear me when I got home.
Nothing went as planned after the baby was born. I became ill postpartum. After a month I had to give up breast-feeding because it was too physically taxing. I could barely walk across the room, and was mostly bedridden. I had to leave my home in Los Angeles and move in with my mother. I couldn’t sleep with my son because I needed the rest to recuperate. After the third month of spending all day and night in bed, unable to even answer my own baby’s cries, I began to lose my sense of self, my identity.
Chloe seemed to know she was allowed back in bed or maybe she sensed my desperation and sadness. My body had betrayed me and I could not take care of my baby. I spent many days crying, not from the physical pain of my condition, but from the fact that I wasn’t bonding with my child. And there was Chloe. In my darkest hours, when I felt the most useless, it was my dog who kept me feeling like a human being. A year and half later our family of three is back in Los Angeles and although life with a toddler is hectic, I make sure I find time out every day to look Chloe in the eyes and thank her for always being there for me.
By: Sheana Ochoa
There have been numerous studies showing that human beings are not naturally monogamous animals. We don’t need anthropologists and sociologists to tell us this. And it isn’t just the astronomical divorce rate in the States that indicates people are not necessarily meant to mate for life. The only thing we know to be true is that nothing stays the same. People change, get sick, fall in love, leave in order to pursue a deferred dream, or simply bail out and disappear for a while. Our puritanical view of a life-long partnership is an idealistic vision particular to Americans, since it seems in most other countries infidelities are tolerated or forgiven more often or simply accepted. Here, it’s the ultimate betrayal and shattering of the illusion of love. Love and sex however, in the animal kingdom, of which we are a part, are great when they go together, but they seldom do.
The problem arises when people decide to have children, because the emotional collateral of a broken relationship or marriage affects children and their need for stability in order to grow into confident, healthy adults. In most cases, women end up raising the children from these itinerant unions because we are the nurturing ones, we bear the children, and there just seems to be an inherent responsibility for mothers to stay with them.
Knowing this and knowing I wanted a child, I circumvented the whole daddy scenario. I won’t be disingenuous. If I had met a man who was my best friend as well as my lover, I would have mated the traditional way, but that is not what happened. And so when choosing to have a child on my own, I did not have to consider asking an ex-boyfriend or a gay friend to knock me up. I didn’t want to tie my life to someone else, or risk any future paternity issues. So I opted for an anonymous donor.
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, investigates early human sexuality in hunter and gatherer societies, making the well-known argument that it wasn’t until sedentary, agricultural communities planted roots (forgive the pun) that humans became concerned with property and who would inherit it. Suddenly paternity became a matter of prosperity. Similarly, marriage was created as a way of uniting properties and increasing wealth. Women could not own property and were considered property themselves, along with the land they transferred from their family to their husband through the institution of marriage. It isn’t surprising that the Spanish word for wife, esposa, is also the word for handcuffs.
Actually, only within the last century have women been in a position to marry for love. And this notion of love has become inextricably tied to marriage and, by extension, monogamy. I am not proposing open marriages or relationships; I am simply stating the facts of human nature. Modern culture sees marriage dogmatically, not realistically. It’s not a bad thing to want to build a life with someone you love, to want to devote yourself to one person and create a family. This is the American Dream in a sense. But a dream it is indeed, and we need to remain cognizant of the latter part: creating a family. Because once a partner strays in our society, the marriage is doomed.
Perhaps the solution therefore is to go into a committed relationship or marriage as friends first and foremost. Friends treat each other respectfully, don’t expect perfection, allow failure, and work together when there are disagreements. And in the event that they go their separate ways, they have usually built years of tolerance for each other so that an amount of respect filters the severance. In this scenario, if children are involved in the separation, they can at least be dispensed of feeling at fault, used as pawns, forced to choose whose side they’re on, or any such other avoidable detrimental impositions. Sure, the family unit will be different, but it doesn’t have to become volatile or unstable.
I began dating after a two-year hiatus and all the issues of love and trust and marriage are coming into play. My number one priority is my son, but I have my own needs. What I’ve found is that following my heart instead of my head is a new thing. If I had followed my head I would never have had my son on my own. There were too many reasons not to. My heart will lead me to a relationship built from a friendship and I am finding, whether it is life-long or not, that is as good as it gets.
For more on how Sheana became a single mom, check out this article- We Wanted To Be Moms
[Illustration Credit: Jason Salazar]
Being a single parent presents the same challenges all parents face but you have two less hands to help. When you are raising a family by yourself you are the one getting lunches ready, giving baths, and driving to and from football practice. You can’t use the good cop/bad cop routine. You don’t ever get a break. Many single parents work long hours or even work two jobs. You are faced with the financial and time constraints of a two-parent household with one income. Luckily, there are a few simple changes you can make that will help you support your child without adding stress to your already busy life.
Create a “home base”
For your “home base” you will need a calendar, a basket for incoming schoolwork, a spot for backpacks, and space to write. Your home base can be a corner of your kitchen, a side table in your living room, or an office. Announce this spot to your children as the hub of your home and remind them to use it as such. Use a different color pencil for each child’s activities to keep your children’s schedules straight. Encourage your children to keep track of their own activities. Designate a basket where your children can put notices that you need to see and forms you need to sign. Keeping all the forms in one place ensures you don’t miss important information. Keep pencils and pens next to the basket so you can fill out forms immediately and put them right back into your child’s backpack. Your time is valuable, and having a home base keeps you from wasting time searching all over the house for forms, notices, and assignments that need to get sent to school.
Ask for help…and return the favor
Don’t be afraid to ask a neighbor or friend for help. Most moms know that no matter what the circumstance, being a parent requires lots of juggling. Asking a neighbor to drive your child to school in the morning is fine, but be sure to return the favor and drive the kids to the school dance over the weekend. Remember- a simple thank you goes a long way. A bouquet of flowers, a gift card for a coffee shop, or a batch of cookies are inexpensive ways to show you appreciate the support you get and it has not gone unnoticed. A handwritten note to say thanks for the help does the trick, too.
Communicate with the teacher
Let her know what days or times are best for you to meet or to speak on the phone. Give her a time frame in which you intend to return her calls or notes. If you know you work late and don’t always get to her notes right away, let her know she can expect to hear from you within 48 hours. If you have a day off during the week, ask for her consideration when scheduling meetings. Being clear about communication with your child’s school leads to consistent and open interactions.
You can’t be in three places at once so choose the meetings, school events, and games that mean the most to you and your children. Include your children in the process by letting them choose an event they want you to attend. Be honest with your children about why you can’t be at all their events but don’t dwell on it. Refrain from constantly reminding them that you are the only parent helping out- they know this and you should vent to your friends, not your children. When they get home ask specific questions about what happened in the big game or the school play. If you want to volunteer at your child’s school but can’t be there all the time, ask if you can help stuff envelopes or make phone calls and do some of the behind-the-scenes work for events.
Remember that you are one person taking on a huge job and can only do your best each day. Pat yourself on the back for maintaining your children’s safety and security. Give yourself credit for taking care of all the day-to-day responsibilities by yourself. Enjoy the time you get to spend with your children and stay positive- your children will model your attitude and you can be a happy and productive family together.
Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.