A fresh perspective: Cathy Zielske

When Annie and I first started tossing around the idea of a blog aimed at mid-stage parents, we knew we wanted a multiplicity of perspectives. Sure, I love to hear myself talk (see myself write?), but I am also infinitely intrigued with how other people relate to, interact with, and teach their teenage kids. I'm always up for a good idea or stellar example.

Our idea, then, was to feature a series of interviews with other parents -- allowing them a space to explain how their families work best and what they love most about mid-stage parenting. We made a pie-in-the-sky list of possible interview-ees and at the top of mine was Cathy Zielske.

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Lo these many years ago I began reading Cathy's blog because she is an incredible graphic designer who was (and is) making a huge impact on the scrapbook industry. Do you remember when we used to cut our photos into the shape of hearts and suns and bunnies? Yeah, Cathy never did that. She's all about clean lines and crisp graphics. Even when my interest in classic scrapbooking waned, I continued reading Cathy's blog because she is funny, warm, real, and an uber-cool mom. The way she writes about her kids is loving and infinitely respectful of who they are and who they are becoming. Also, she's fun. And has great taste in music.

So, when Cathy agreed to this interview I started running around my house in circles, giving myself high fives and thumbs up, and shouting ecstatic exclamations of jubilation (for real). I could seriously go on and on, but I'll stop the explaining here so that you can concentrate on Cathy's words. She rocks.


First off, tell us about your kids.   Aidan, 17, my first-born child. She is a smart, self-assured, studious, creative, style-conscious young woman. She is a vegetarian who loves music, math and television. She excels at pretty much everything she tries.

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Cole, 13, my second-born son. He is an intense, funny, creative, passionate and sometimes exceptionally loud young man. He’s an Xbox fanatic who loves gaming, guitars, zombies and grunge music. He excels at doing awesomely weird voices and playing the drums.

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What have you learned as a mom of older kids that you wish you had known when your kids were younger? I wish I would have learned to really SEE my children for who they were sooner, and offer them the acknowledgement that I am giving them now. I can thank my therapist for the perspective I have today that I just didn’t have when they were younger.

I also wish I hadn’t worked as much when Cole was little. I’ve been self-employed since he was born, working mostly as a graphic designer, and there were so many days when SpongeBob spent more time with him than I did. I was always scrambling to get the work done. It’s ironic that I quit  my job to be a stay-at-home-mom and yet still ended up working a lot more than I should have. That’s a hindsight perspective, but as he gets older I realize how utterly precious that time was, and I wish I’d soaked it up just a little bit more. I’m not making that mistake now. Every day with them, both of my children, is a gift. I’m so aware of time as we all get older in this family.

If you could sum up your philosophy of this mid-stage of parenting into a fortune cookie, what would it say? See your kids. Who are they? What are they interested in? What matters to them? What do they believe? They are not simply chips off the old blocks, though our children will always pick up things they learn from us. It’s inevitable.  My job right now is to see them and help them to develop as long as they are living under my roof, which is such a short, short time if you think about it. Part of the way I do this is by living an example that I am proud of and showing them how to be competent, how to understand who they are and how to always stay connected to what is real and what is needed in life. Not exactly a small order, but it’s what I strive for every day.

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What’s your favorite part of parenting teens? I love that they are old enough now that I can share some of the things I’m passionate about, namely awesome but sometimes scary movies, or music that may not have been appropriate for their younger selves, or just having much more mature conversations about politics and social issues of the day. I am so proud of both of my kids because they are developing true empathy and compassion in their daily lives, but also for the world at large.

The other thing that is exciting and sometimes scary is that life is always changing with them. One day is great. The next day totally sucks. I get to figure out how to parent them on every level as they come. It’s a challenge that I really love right now because it gives me so many opportunities to make real and lasting connections with both of them.

What’s your most challenging part of parenting teens? Not injecting too much of my opinions into conflicts or discussions. This isn’t to say I am shy to share my thoughts on any given issue, but I am constantly reminding myself that this relationship is not just about me. Believe me, it used to be so much more about what Mom thinks, and what Mom says. Now, I am really learning to listen more and react calmly and responsibly.

What have been your most successful family gatherings/activities with older kids?  I swear that almost everything we do as a family turns out to be fun and memorable. From going out to eat at one of our local pubs to heading out for a night at the theater to hanging out at home and watching back-to-back episodes of “Modern Family,” we quite often gel as a unit. I will say going to concerts with the kids has been really fun. It’s been cool to see them get into some of the music we love. One of my favorite family memories was from a few years back when we all went to see Green Day. The kids rocked so hard that night, and I’m so happy they have that memory with me and their Dad.

We’ve gone to lots of plays, musicals and the like. My own family didn’t do anything like that when I was growing up, and I really love that we’ve done this with our kids. In fact, music in general has been something that’s really bonded our family. We all are music lovers, often passionate about the latest thing we’re into, or the old cherished standby. When Aidan was a baby, instead of kid music, we’d play Bjork or Van Morrison. When Cole was three, Peter Gabriel was his favorite musician, and when he was six, it was Freddie Mercury. I’m really grateful we have been able to share our love of music with them. It’s another way we create meaningful connections.

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What new routines or traditions have evolved as your kids have gotten older?  They don’t sleep anymore! I’m serious. I have two complete and total night owls. Both of them. When my daughter hit middle school, she started staying up later and later, much to my dismay. It took me awhile to realize: she is not wired like me. She functions really well at night. Granted, she was not getting anywhere near the amount of sleep she needs, but I learned this wasn’t a battle to fight. Since she’s hit high school, she really balances out late nights doing homework or watching Dr. Who with crashing out at 10 p.m. My son is now hitting the late night stage as well. We do tell him to make sure he’s lights out by 11:30 on school nights, and he manages that most of the time. But late nights are the rule at our house, if you’re a teen that is.

I think giving them a chance to figure out what works and doesn’t work is something I owe them. Sometimes, Cole will really pay a price for a late night. We see this on Sunday morning when he goes to confirmation class with his Dad. He’s a very crabby boy, but he accepts that it’s his doing. That’s a kid who’s developing self awareness and learning that all actions have consequences. I love seeing him take responsibility for them. 

How and/or when do you connect with your teens best? It sounds cliché, but we have great conversations on car rides. This is always the case with my daughter, not always with my son. However, my secret weapon with Cole is to make sure all of our Nirvana CDs are in the car. It’s all about looking for points of connection. Sure, it helps that I like that music too, but even if he comes up with something I don’t like or understand, I’m going to make sure I give it my energy and focus, knowing this can open the door to conversations and ultimately a connection that lets him know: I am interested in understanding you.

We also connect at dinner. It's not every night that we all sit down together, but when we do, we’ve always had the tradition of sharing our highs and lows of the day. It’s just a nice time to connect, share stories, laugh and of course, get our stomach’s filled.

What is one thing you want your children to learn/understand before they leave home? I want them to have self-worth and to be competent to understand themselves and others.  I want them to understand that life is a continuum, that it always changes and that they need to adapt and change to thrive and live. I want them to be connected to real life, not some fantasy constructed by the media or advertising or any other artificial feel-good phooey. I want them to be courageous enough to be who they are. I want them to be responsible for their emotions. I want them to cultivate gratitude, joy and passion. I want them to also realize pain is part of the experience of being human.

That, and to make sure they brush their teeth well into adulthood and to not take drugs or smoke.

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Any funny stories you can share about your kids or mid-stage parenting? I should be able to answer this question, but both my husband and I looked at each other blankly. My kids are both really funny and witty, and it seems like they’re always saying stuff and I catch myself thinking: I need to write that down. Sometimes I do and include in our family scrapbooks. Sometimes, I try to commit it to memory but obviously, that ain’t working so hot these days!

I do recall recently realizing that I was embarrassing Cole and not aware of it. I drive both kids to their middle/high school every day (Aidan goes at 7:30, Cole at 8:30), and most days I drive in my pajamas. Aidan could not care less what her mother looks like at any given time, but Cole kept asking me to drop him off further back in the parking lot. I finally made the connection: my turquoise owl pajama pants were totally bumming him out. He really didn’t want any of his friends to see his pajama-laden mama. I didn’t say anything, but started remembering to put on the black yoga pants. I’ve noticed he lets me drop him off closer to the school entrance now. It’s all about paying attention and minimizing any teen social discomfort.

Here’s a story that isn’t really funny, but is kind of cool. The other day Aidan and I were driving to IKEA, which takes about an hour, round trip. (Remember, drive time equals potential connection time?) And she said to me, “Don’t take this as a compliment, and I know you’re going to, but please try not to… you and Dad are just really cool. Like, you’re just so much cooler than my other friends’ parents.”

She went on to talk about how we love music, how we are interested in social justice, how we seem to support the things she wants to do, and so on. I ended up telling her how I grew up and learned to be tolerant of other cultures, religions, sexual orientations and the like. I talked about being part of the punk rock culture in the 80s and how I felt like that whole scene informed and guided my views on so many levels. It was a chance to share with her part of what makes me me, as well as giving her a chance to express her gratitude to have parents that are trying their very best to really get her.

What I love about this is that we aren’t trying to be cool parents. We have rules and expectations in our house. But we also try really hard to acknowledge our children at every opportunity. It’s something that I keep in the forefront of my parenting toolbox every single day. I don’t always succeed, but it’s my number one goal as a parent.


See? She's awesome! It really resounded with me that Cathy's number one, everyday priority is to teach her children to understand who they are, what is real, and what is needed. And she teaches them how to understand themselves by being a strong, empowered person herself. That's launching prep at its finest. Thanks Cathy!