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“Bedtime”, that lovely two hour span after dinner before anyone actually gets into bed, is not more fun than I expected it to be. But between camping and sleepovers, we’ve only done it here twice, and for one of those times I had an assistant. Yes, that’s cheating. No, I don’t care.

But after bedtime, there’s the quiet space where they really fall asleep, and that happens with or without the hours-long ritual, whether or not I stay to see it unfold. Tonight I did.

Watching Rio’s face sometimes I see glimpses of her adult face peeking through, the clear set of her eyes around long cheeks. It’s a face very different from what I imagined on her. More of her father than I see in her now, as a kid. Quiet, serious, focused, but also joyful and deeply grounded. I’m wary, of course, of projecting my visions of her future onto the soft clay of her childhood, but it’s nice to imagine her strong, free and different from who I thought she’d become. Especially as I watch her drift helplessly into sleep, clutching her baby doll under her chin, losing her way mid-sentence as she tries to demand another bedtime story in sign language.

Serena is growing up too. Tonight she finished nursing (finally! Who knew there was an end?), and then rolled and flopped and wiggled and turned. Eventually she sat straight up in bed, looked around for a moment assessing the situation, and began very earnestly pushing me off the mattress. She’d pick up my knee and give it a shove, then start pushing my belly…I got the message and moved to the rocker. From there, I watched her writhe and wiggle and sigh and tuck herself under the covers and then kick them off and then pull them back up until finally she so very slowly dropped her eyes shut and was gone to dreaming, hands folded behind her head as if napping on a sunny beach.

Good night girls. I’m glad we had this moment together. You’re beautiful. I do love watching you grow, even if I’m grouchy about how long it takes some days.

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I would like my cape and tights, please. In size extra-awesome.

Menstruating? Check.
Laryngitis? Check.
Solo parenting for the week? Check.
Sudden increase in workload with both my day job and my freelance writing? Check.

Did I manage, in the past 24 hours, to conduct an interview for a magazine, run a preschool day, learn how to use my new camera, pick up our farm share, take the kids biking in spite of a light drizzle and show up at a Canada Day party with fresh-baked banana muffins? Yes, yes I did.

Now I am going to collapse, so I can do it all again tomorrow. Possibly without the banana bread, but hopefully also without the laryngitis.

(What I really mean here is: how do you single parents do this day after day? I have had more help than I will probably ever admit to this past week, so much that it hardly feels honest to say I’m goin’ it alone, and I still feel like I’ve been hit by the baby train after only a few days. How do you survive? How do your kids? Does it get easier or do you just get stronger?)

The Boston Globe today published a detailed, caring essay on What to do if your child has superpowers?, written by an expert in pediatric heroism. While the main goal of the piece seems to be to reassure parents who have recently discovered superpowers in their young children, he does offer some practical tips on the raising of young heroes, like how to handle discipline with children who control magnetic fields.

His best advice for all of us, though, comes in his closing, where he helps us lay aside the natural fear that our teenagers will grow up to be supervillians:

“My experience has taught me that being intent on world domination is a phase that everyone goes through. If these feeling persist, however, consider allowing them to control a small region populated by self-aware robots.”

All parenting advice should be this useful and entertaining. Are you reading this, Parenting Magazine? Less fashion advice, more superheroes!

I have this friend. Let’s call her M. M has a daughter a little younger than Rio, who we’ll call N.

M and I like to do a lot of things together, and one of our favorite games is Bad Plan Theater. That’s when we come up with a plan so crazy it just might work – like flying to California on a whim or walking down the abandoned railroad tracks just to see where they go.

On this week’s episode of Bad Plan Theater, we decided to indulge our daughters in the slumber party they’ve been asking for since last summer. What could go wrong?

So many things. The mamas could be tired and a little cranky. The pizza could be cold. The clean laundry basket could get ‘discovered’ by the kids and turned into a vehicle that spews laundry around the house. Storytime could mysteriously take 90 minutes. Little N could find it impossible to sleep with a guest in her room.

But what actually had us packing our bags at 9:30 at night to head home was Rio, my big, strong, independent child, breaking down into tears for just one little moment in the dark and saying, “Mommy, I want to sleep in my bed! I want my Daddy!”

This lasted only a moment. I said yes, of course she could go home. Slumber parties are never required. I finished the story I was telling to N, while Rio bounced up, said a tender good-night to her friend and fled downstairs. I ran into her at the door, where she was slipping her sparkly-silver-Wizard-of-Oz slippers on over her PJ feet and cheerfully saying goodnight to our host.

“Good-bye, M!” she said. “I’m going to go home and sleep in my own bed. Thank you for the offer, though.”

Thank you for the offer? That child has better manners than I do.

I’m proud of her for being polite and collected and clear about her needs. I am also secretly relieved that sleeping over at a friend’s house for the first time turned out to be a scary prospect for her. She’s so tough, it’s easy to forget she’s also a small girl still. I’m glad she can still be vulnerable with me when she needs to, and that she’s not really 5 going on 30.

Rio's allowance jars

Rio's allowance jars

This post at the Simple Dollar got me thinking about kid’s allowance money. It got me thinking too much for a blog comment over there, so you get to read all about it.

Kid’s allowances are one of my most regular cash expenses, along with groceries and gas for my car. All the frugal living tactics I know of would tell me to cut them out, just like I’ve canceled all my magazine subscriptions and club memberships. They’re a recurring weekly expense that is not strictly necessary, and they’re not helping me pay down my debts. That’s not a line item I want to see in my budget.

But I keep giving the kids an allowance. Why?

I want my children to share in the wealth of the household. Everyone who lives here gets a bed, clothes to wear, food to eat, time and space to do work they love and to pursue a social life, and the loving support of their family members. Everyone also gets a little pocket money, that comes from the income brought in by the adults in the house. I don’t consider this stuff everyone has a right to, it’s just the contract we’ve made within our family about how we run our household.

There aren’t any restrictions on getting the allowance. It is theirs whether or not they do chores, behave themselves, or spend it wisely. Just like the expectation that they will help clean up after meals and treat everyone in the house with kindness is there whether they’ve had a bad day or the other sibling really started it or they just don’t want to. It’s part of being in this family.

I understand that many people also use allowance money to teach kids about how money works, and if mine learn something from getting theirs, so much the better.

Here is how we do it: everyone over the age of 4 gets a weekly allowance equal to one dollar per year of their age. If you are a child, that allowance is divided into four categories: Savings, Spending, When I’m A Grown Up (this is known as Investing to adults) and Giving. Trent from Simple Dollar calls this approach The Money Savvy Pig Philosophy. I first read about it in a magazine where I think it was simply called “a good idea”.

We started giving an allowance to my older daughter when she started asking me to buy things for her that I did not want to buy – in particular a replacement for a pair of sparkly sequined shoes that had been given to her as a gift, and which she wore till the sequins rubbed off and the soles gave out.

When Rio began getting her allowance, she saved carefully for those sequined shoes, and after about two months was able to buy them. She was thrilled to buy them with her own money, but hasn’t saved up for a big purchase since. She has nearly worn out the new pair by now, and has plenty of money saved up to replace them if she wants to.

I got four glass milk jars from a local dairy and labeled them Spending, Saving, When I’m a Grown Up and Giving. Rio helped by decorating the labels with watercolors. Then I began giving her four dollars a week with the caveat that she needed to put one dollar in each jar. Now that she gets $5 a week she can choose where to put the extra dollar. Mostly she uses it to buy bubblegum.

Like Trent plans to do with his son, I started out giving Rio her allowance in Sacajawea dollars, but stopped when she got upset by that and said she wanted to get paid in “real dollars”. I may start again because someone gave her a Sacajawea dollar for her birthday and now she’s fascinated by them.

My teenage stepson also gets $15 a week, one dollar per year of age. This feels like a lot to me, but is also about what he spends on bus fare and a few trips to the cafe around the corner to get some quiet time away from his sisters. Unlike with the little ones, I don’t restrict how he spends or saves his allowance. I do model what I hope is good behavior with money, and talk openly with him about frugality. The other day we built a bicycle together out of spare parts so he’d have a summer ride, rather than buying him a new bike. I think he learns a lot that way.

Is he too old to just be handed money? I don’t think so. Right now he has perfect grades, a weekly volunteer gig and a heavy load of summer reading for his fall classes. I don’t want him to sacrifice any of those things to a summer job because he feels a want of pocket money, so I give it to him. I worked a lot in high school, and I don’t think it taught me anything useful about managing my own money or helped me build any career skills for my future. My time would have been better spent doing more volunteer work and creative skill-building, so that’s what I want my kids to focus on.

Serena, the toddler, got in on the allowance action when she saw me giving money to the other kids. She wanted to be part of that ritual so badly she actually learned to say the word “Money”, or something like it with fewer consonants and more insistent hand gestures.

For Serena, I created a single allowance jar, also using an old milk bottle. I give her a few coins from my wallet each week. We put the coins in her jar together, and a few times a week when she wants to play with it, we take her jar out and she gets to dump all the coins on the floor and carefully pick them up again and put them back in the jar. She gets real value out of the money I give her – as a toy! And she doesn’t feel left out of the allowance system.

I’m sure our system isn’t perfect, but we haven’t run headlong into any big problems with it so far. Except the recurring expense issue, and I can happily afford $20 a week for my kids’ allowances. Because I’ve learned to live frugally myself in so many other areas.

What do you do with kids and money? Do your kids get an allowance? How much? Under what conditions? Let me know in the comments.

Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

What parent has not worried about the impact of Disney’s princess marketing juggernaut on their young kids? It’s ubiquitous, poisonous and almost impossible to avoid.

Today, a good friend sent me this link to Fallen Princesses, a photo exhibit by Dina Goldstein. She is, apparently, a mom and a photographer, and these photos are her answer to the dark questions the Disney princesses stirred up when her three-year-old became besotted with them.

Because it was sent to me with no warning about what it was, I happened to look at it with my five-year-old daughter on my lap.

Let me tell you, we had some fascinating conversation about what those princesses in those pictures were doing. I was only a little dismayed when Rio cooed at Snow White, “Look, Mama, this is when she has babies! And a husband! And a dog!”

uh…yes. To her credit, a little later Rio looked more closely and said, “They do seem to have a lot of babies.”

After we’d looked at the whole series, Rio wanted to know what was going on with these princesses. Especially with Belle, who is depicted having plastic surgery.

“She’s having surgery on her face,” I said.

“Why?”

“To make her look like a princess,” I said. I did not want to be having this conversation. I don’t want my five-year-old to know about plastic surgery, or the desire to be someone else, or the beauty industry.

“Why would she do that?” This is one of those moments, I realized. One of the moments when my daughter asks me hard questions and I owe her real answers.

“She doesn’t know how beautiful she is,” I said. “She’s confused.”

And then I told her that real women sometimes have surgery on their faces to try to be prettier. That real women sometimes do all the things these princesses are doing – get sick, have babies that no one helps them care for, get sad, grow old and lonely.

Rio expressed the opinion that princesses are great, and she understands why any woman would want to look like one. On cross-examination, she agreed that I am beautiful, and don’t look like a princess. That’s because I’m not one, she explained.

“I wish I was a princess,” Rio said. “But I can’t do anything about that.”

“You are better than any princess to me,” I said.

“No, I’m not,” Rio said very matter-of-factly. “Princesses are better than me. Because they are prettier.”

um…

Deep breath. What to say? This is the textbook Disney-is-evil stuff I’ve read about but never expected to encounter in my own home. Lost, I repeated myself.

“You are better than any princess to me.”

“Even the world is not better than princesses,” Rio explained patiently, the way one talks to someone very slow. “Princesses are the best.”

After that she wanted to know if princesses are real. I showed her a picture of Princess Di, and talked about how hard her life was. Rio wanted to know if Real Princesses are real, and I assured her that all of Disney’s princesses are entirely fake.

I’ve always been a bit of an apologist for Disney. I don’t buy that stuff, obviously, and we don’t watch TV at home. But I haven’t worked to keep it away from my kids either.

Very early in my parenting, a mom I admired made a case for princess-worship as a little girl version of goddess worship, in which young kids deify images of beautiful, magically gifted, powerful young women. I liked that reading, and clung to it when my two-year-old became obsessed with the Little Mermaid.

Beyond the female divinity argument, I’m an avid fan of Bruno Bettelheim. I’m sure he wouldn’t defend Disney; they whitewash fairy tales in exactly the way he advises against. But I think one of his most basic points is that children experience stories differently than adults do. They are drawn into a story for reasons opaque to their parents, and are satisfied by elements that elude us. This should be obvious to anyone who has ever let their preschooler pick the story at bedtime and then been stuck reading a Clifford book aloud for the 37th time. So while the princess schwag looks appaling to me, I’ve rested happy in the knowledge that I am not the target audience, and can’t know what my kid is getting out of it.

Finally, like most of my peers I survived a childhood riddled with Barbie, GI Joe and Strawberry Shortcake, and still grew up to be a self-lovin’ hippy feminist. Rio will do just fine no matter what crappy gender stereotypes she plays with as a kid. By the time she’s old enough to read this, I’m sure the fact that she ever wanted to be a Disney princess will be an embarassing footnote on a glorious life as a self-possessed, beautiful, brilliant young person.

That said, hearing my own daughter (who, let’s face it, has had a pretty sheltered life when it comes to media) say that she thinks princesses are better than her because they are prettier cost Disney all their credit with me and then some. Rio will be fine, but they are not helping. They are hurting.

Why am I posting about this? It’s not because I’m all riled up about how Disney is undermining my daughter’s self-esteem. I do plan to write them a letter, which I expect them to ignore. Whatever.

I am posting about this because Rio asked me to. “Mama, can we put these on your website?” she said. She wanted everyone we know to see these princesses. Because, you may recall, princesses are The Best. I agree with her. I want everyone we know to see this – both the photos and the discussion they provoked – in the hopes that a few more of us will wake up and stop turning a blind eye to what Disney is doing to our girls.

IMG_4206.JPG, originally uploaded by MzMuze.

Serena, like most toddlers, loves to mimic everything Mommy does. Especially the things Mommy does that are not generally available to toddlers. Like operating a spray bottle full of cleaning chemicals, or using the garden tools.

Today was her day to do it all, just like a grown-up. A few of our plants are infested with aphids. The cure for this, according to our Wise Gardening Neighbors? A very diluted solution of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Another neighbor gave us a big bottle of it, which I watered down and poured into an old 7th Gen spray bottle.

Toddler toy, meet pest control. How often do you get a chance to put those things together in a good way? Serena was delighted. This photo captures her focus and determination. She must have spent an hour carefully spraying everything in the garden. Those aphids and their ant farmers have met their match!

I took a lot of photos in the garden today, as well as some jammaking ones. They’re all up on my Flickr if you want to see more of what the girls and I got up to.

The scene: Serena is sitting quietly on the couch, playing with a basket of dolls. I am sitting on the floor nearby, trying to sweep up the carnage of broken crayons, doll parts and torn paper flowers that Rio and her playmate have left in their wake. Picking through the trash I’ve swept up, I find a few dolls that belong in Serena’s basket.

Casually, I toss one into the basket. A few seconds later, it comes flying back. I look up and Serena is staring at me in open delight. She picks out another doll and throws it at my head, then waves her hands happily.Let me translate her shrieks of joy for you:

“Best game ever, Mom! I had no idea these things were for throwing at each other! Love it!”

*Zing* Here comes another one. Fortunately I was already hanging my head in shame, or I’d have caught that one square in the face.

And I thought I was having a rough day. Here’s a report on women parenting babies in prison.

The report looks at a number of different programs that allow mothers and babies to stay together while the women serve their prison sentences. Laying aside one’s feelings about the efficacy or ethics of locking people up for non-violent crimes, programs that allow moms and babies to stay together seem like a great step toward breaking the cycle of poverty-crime-prison that many of these babies are born into. That’s a boon not just to the individual mothers and babies, but to all of us.

I was upset by the general tone of commentary on Feministing’s post about this. A lot of people were critical of these programs because they saw them as inappropriately privileging mothers over women who don’t bear children but might have other worthwhile things to do with their lives. I get that, but I think it misses the point that these programs are at least as much about the babies as they are about the women.

Several people said that mothers have no special relationship to newborn infants, and that anyone can care for a newborn as well the biological mother can. I don’t think that even warrants a response, and were I to attempt one it would be in language too colorful for this blog.

What I did not see, and am interested in, is perspectives from women who’ve been in prison, or those whose mothers were. If you’ve had that experience, or been close to people having that experience, I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments.

I just ordered my kids back into the house in the middle of a sunny afternoon. The last straw came when a neighbor driving by stopped to yell at me that my baby was escaping, while her sister cried over a scooter-inflicted injury and I tried desperately to contain the chaos. I wound up throwing my cell phone into the bushes and tripping over the scooter myself.

“That’s it!” I shouted. “We are going inside! No more sunshine, no more scooters, no more picnic!”I scooped the baby up in one arm and the scooter in the other and marched right back into the house.

Which my two charming daughters proceeded to tear about is if bent on a mission of demolition. Within minutes they had broken furniture, skin, and what was left of my mind. But we are still inside.

What kind of ogre am I?

The kind of ogre that has to pay her mortgage, a task which involves finding the checkbook, writing the check and actually giving said check to her long-suffering housemate. The kind of ogre that has to make a phone call to a pediatric optometrist with the insane hubris to work only during hours that children are awake. The kind of ogre that has been wearing the same clothes for three days because there is nothing left in her drawers.

In other words, I’m an adult. And it turns out that those long lazy days of summer are not as idyllic for me at this point in my life as they were when I was five. Not only do I like games of tag and hide-n-seek a little less, but I find endless idleness less satisfying. Even on the days when I can spend the afternoon with other mom friends on a picnic blanket, knitting and chatting and passing time with pleasant grown-up pursuits while the kids play tag nearby… I don’t want every day to be an uninterrupted swath of play.

There is real work that must be done so that I and my family can continue to live well, and being prevented from doing it by a schedule of constant free play is, frankly, annoying. Playing all day long can be fun. Doing all the housework and finance work and personal work after the kids are *finally* asleep in their beds is not.

I believe passionately that my kids should have as much unstructured outdoor time as possible, every day of their too-short childhoods. I’m now running up against the reality that what is good for them is not always good for me. I know this of course, but here’s another opportunity to learn the lesson.

I realize it’s outrageous to be complaining that my day job is one that requires me to laze around at parks and playgrounds for nearly every sweet hour of warm sunshine the good earth gives us. It’s the very pinnacle of luxury angst, but once in awhile I envy my friends with office jobs.

Flickr Photos

A little bird told me…

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