Is it possible to be a working Mom and an excellent Mom?

I try to be a good mom and good at my job. It means you have to be flexible at times – like when you leave work early to be with the kids after school and you have to get your work done late at night or in my case early in the morning. (I work hard not to send emails before 7am, but sometimes I stockpile them and hit send all at once. So gratifying…). I am fortunate to have a somewhat flexible job, so I can take time off, for example, to take the kids to appointments or see an afternoon presentation if it works with my schedule. Sometimes I don’t even have to try to be a good mom – one night in Vancouver, I woke up out of a deep sleep and texted a reminder to Kevin about Kathleen’s orthodontist appointment. When I eventually woke up, I texted again to ask if he would have remembered without me, and he pleaded the fifth. My point is that I believe there is some mechanism deep within women that helps us be good Moms, without always trying.

But all of this runs off the rails when someone gets sick. Now I have already written about the time Jacob barfed at boarding school, and about the time I barfed when we were first married, so it is only fair that I write about Kathleen’s barfing at home experience … clearly this is a theme for me! Something about that experience that forces the big questions…

So there I was Sunday night holding back Kathleen’s hair as she lay with her head in the toilet. Poor thing knew it was coming and, based on what was going around, I knew it would happen all night. I was faced with a choice: I knew my Mom (who typically drops everything when the kids are sick) was not in town; I knew Kevin had a big meeting but could be home for parts of the day (I had already checked); and so I had this dilemma. If I canceled my trip to Vancouver, I could be an excellent Mom to my teenaged daughter. But this was a pretty important trip for me, with two days of meeting with students, admin and boards…which are tough to reschedule….my board chair was joining one of the meetings… never a good idea to reschedule a volunteer….But then what if I got sick? Do flights still have barf bags? Do they even call them that?

I decided that this was not a life-threatening illness; her father would be there with her at some points, and she would be fine to stay home alone. But the motherhood guilt about leaving had kicked in, so I got up three of the next four times she got up, which meant I was in pretty rough shape myself when my alarm went off at 4:45am. As I left the house, I felt incredibly guilty. Then, when I got her first text, and she told me that she was hoping to watch Dance Moms, I felt ready to nominate myself for Worst Mother of the Year Award…

My point is that doing both requires a strong support network and tough choices.

Much as I would have liked to be home to bring her soup in bed, I think she benefitted from taking care of herself and filling her day – she actually chose to watch a documentary on North Korea so she could understand the hype about The Interview. (If you haven’t checked out the free-range kids movement, Skenazy’s new show aired last night.) I hope she will come to learn that women – in particular – have to reprioritize sometimes when things don’t go as planned.

As for me? I am trying to focus on the recent discussions about the need to take a long view of “balance” in our lives, and hoping that the same can be said of parenting.

You want grit? Two simple words.

I want my kids to be resilient, and I have a new year’s strategy that I think will work. It is not based on research, but I am currently testing it, and I will share the results. It is not a strategy that parents should necessarily endorse whole-heartedly, but I hope they do, and I hope that some schools will also experiment with it in certain situations. I tested it two nights ago, and so far, I am convinced that I have the solution.

Here is the scenario. On Sunday morning, Jacob packed for his return to boarding school. I did all of his laundry the day before, and Kevin found all of his ski gear, but we didn’t do the usual scrutinizing of his packing as we were a bit preoccupied (We were also packing up after babysitting our two year old niece for three nights). The good news is that Jacob didn’t ask for help, and we were pleased with his initiative (another skill worthy of development in teens). To be honest, I didn’t even ask if he had everything; I was just happy that we were all out the door on time for a big family brunch.

So when the text came through that night at 9:05, when he was back in his room, I had a moment of motherhood guilt. He wrote: “So far I have forgotten my new pillow, face wash and winter boots.”

I couldn’t believe it. How could he not have his boots in January? I felt responsible. I also wanted to shake my head and judge us both, but mostly I worried for him (Note: it will be -31 in Lakefield today). I read his text to Kevin, and we agreed we would courier them the next day.

But then I had a pause. Professionally, I say that my job is to ask good questions. What if I did the same as a parent? Rather than jump to his rescue, what if I just asked questions? So I wrote the following: “Your winter boots?? What will you do?”

Now please do not judge me. I know a boy needs his boots. I was willing – still am! – to mail his boots to him. But how is he going to learn from his mistakes?

Every educational resource these days is asking that similar question; the trend is to call it grit. The latest – New Pedagogies for Deep Learning – is something I read over the holidays as background reading for our 2051 Project, and Fullan also identifies the need for schools to develop children with more grit. This is all good. Kids do need grit. I think Angela Duckworth said it first, then Paul Tough and Alfie Kohn were quick to agree, but noted that most current strategies – other than Carol Dweck’s mindset – aren’t working. So how do we teach grit? (And no, I don’t believe it is by letting kids freeze their feet, walking in snow.)

Here is my theory. If you want to teach grit? Follow these two simple words of advice. Now I could present complicated strategies for parents to pause and think of the bigger vision of what we want for our children. I could recommend that we reflect on our own critical learning moments in our lives and think about who solved the problem. (Research shows that we learn life’s most important lessons when our parents are not around (and I would hazard a guess that teachers weren’t involved either!)) So here it is, the two most powerful words of advice that parents can follow in 2015: back off.

So far, Jacob is proving me right. His reply made me realize that there’s hope for him.

Jacob: I have my suede boots but I might borrow.

Mom: Okay. You can survive without your pillow but you need boots. Let me know if I can help.

Jacob: Well I don’t think you can.

The next night I got this text from Jacob: “Played hockey today.”

I wanted to ask about boots… I am really curious to know what he is wearing!   But I also know that playing shinny is his favourite thing to do at Lakefield, and I was just so happy that he texted to share that with me. I have to assume that he made it to and from the rink with something on his feet, and he has figured it out just fine.

So my new year’s resolution for 2015? Back off.   This is new terrain for me; clearly, no room for cold feet along the way.