Humans of Motherhood

In honor of Mother's Day month, we wanted to do something special to acknowledge the collective & individual efforts of mothers around the world to raise good people. Given that we are both huge Humans of New York fans (see here and here), we could think of no better tribute than to take a page from that project--except wordier because we're writers--and present some Humans of Motherhood (HOM).

Because we are. Humans and human. Sometimes we forget to give ourselves--or others--that margin. There really should be a secret handshake, a wink and a fist bump that says "hey, I think you're a great parent, despite your utter conviction some days to the contrary. Despite whatever rotten mistakes your kids make along the way. Despite the shambles of the day around your ankles. Things are going to work out. We're all in this together." (This, by the way, is taken directly from a conversation with Sarah last week.)

Here's to the circle-the-wagons, we're-all-in-this-together club of mothers around the world.


I first met Khuld Alsayyad in junior high in Logan, Utah. Her family moved there for a few years from Iraq while her father earned his master's degree in Engineering from Utah State University. She moved away and I never heard from her again until the magic of Facebook brought us together again early this year and we've resumed our friendship. Trained as an engineer, Khuld now works as a Field Coordinator for the United Nations World Food Programme in Iraq, where she lives with her family. We were chatting yesterday and I couldn't resist asking her for permission to introduce her to you in our Humans of Motherhood series. 

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Tell us about your kids. You have two girls, right?

Masar is 10--she's bright and creative. She is the smile of the house; she is our butterfly. She likes building things, doing things from nothing, from carton boxes. Kade is my older girl. She's 18 and is an angel. She's a smart, quiet person who loves music and speaks English fluently. She's fond of Korean culture--Kpop, movies episodes. I installed a satellite dish so she could see South Korean stations. Now she can talk continuously in Korean at home and can text Korean on her mobile, self taught.

What do you love about being a mom? What are your greatest challenges?

I feel so blessed--I want nothing from life, only to see them happy. They are good, obedient girls and have tolerated my not easy job where I travelled continuously from one place to another. At first I took them with me and they changed schools and friends each year. I was blessed by this job but I knew I had to sacrifice stability; my children and my man have accepted this fact and stood by me, never complained. My mother and father and siblings helped constantly. When my husband went out of the country to get a MSc in Biology, we were three years on our own. My brother came every night at 11 p.m. to sleep on our couch so we wouldn't be alone. (It's customary in our culture to not leave the women alone at night. At first I refused the idea but they said we don't want to let people think you're alone.) I am so grateful to them. They are in every breath. We're very close and now they are with me, step by step, cheering me, advising me, daily calls and visits to know how we are doing. I hope I can be a good parent like my mom and dad.

So your biggest challenge is balancing your family and your profession?

Yes, exactly. I'm also very lucky that my husband is very flexible and supportive. When I got this job, some people refused the idea, "working with foreigners" and this kind of talk. But then they saw that their kids were getting school snacks, widows getting help unemployed and displaced people were getting assistance, emergency operations launched as war fired up. I've been able to be a part of that, "an ambassador of assistance in my country," as our country director tells us. I've been very blessed and lucky with my job.  I cannot deny my man's role in all of this. He might just tell me sit home and be satisfied, I'll  bring home the bread. But instead, when I got promoted to a team leading another province, he encouraged me and said "don't refuse a promotion." He was right. I took it.

You sound like a good team. What is your family life like right now?

I've been busy working in another province, it's about 300 miles from home, giving assistance to displaced people from a province where fighting is taking place and flood affected their area. I'm home now with my kids. Masar is taking final exams now and doing excellent (I'm blessed) and Kade is preparing for her final big exams in June. She is studying continuously from morning til night with lunch and dinner breaks (God help her). She is exhausted but this is normal for good students in this grade in Iraq as exams are extremely difficult and the points she gets determine her future. So I'm praying that all this hard work from her won't go in vain. She's a good obedient smart girl. I took a leave from work to stay with her in this difficult time. She called me and said she needs me near so I'm back home cheering her up til she finishes her exams.

Passing exams is not difficult here but making an A is. You must get a 95% to make pharmacy, 96% medical, 90% engineering. To teach her at this stage at school is not good enough for her to make an A so I've been saving for some time. I sold my gold, which Iraqi women must have, to pay for her teachers. It's the least I can do. I wish there is more.

Isn't she remarkable? Thanks, Khuld, for sharing a bit of your life and heart with us. 


We're collecting photos and interviews for some more Humans of Motherhood posts. We've got some good candidates and if you have someone you'd like to nominate or hear about, drop us a line!

A fresh perspective: Kate Williams

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Today's interview is a conversation with an old friend, Kate Williams. Kate is a hilarious and thoughtful writer who tells it like it is. And you know what else? Kate was my very good friend in the 5th grade!  In fact, Kate knew me at perhaps my most awkward stage of ALL TIME -- junior high. We both loved to read, and we both wanted to be writers. And now look at us! Kate is a writer, and I've been writing the same dissertation for 87 years. Good on us!

My family moved away from the small Texas town where Kate and I endured middle school just after eighth grade, but we were digitally reunited through the ever-astounding connecting power of Facebook. Since then I've followed Kate's blog and laughed along with the exploits of her three sons, Aquaman, and yellow dog. Grab a cold Diet Coke and read on -- Kate's perspective on big kid parenting is warm, funny, and real. 

First off, tell us about your kids.  We have three boys. The oldest I refer to as The Redhead - he’s 14. The twins turn 13 this month. I cannot believe we will have 3 teenagers! I refer to the twins as Thing 1 and Thing 2 when I write.

They are all very interested in science, The Redhead has already declared he’ll be majoring in Marine Engineering (he’s only a 9th grader!) and Thing 2 says he’ll be a marine biologist, like Dad (aka Aquaman). Thing 1 shows the most interest in fishing and geology. They are typical boys. They like fire, explosions, Youtube, and xBox.

What have you learned as a mom of older kids that you wish you had known when your kids were younger?  I wish I had known how bad their memories are. There are so many times when I lost my temper or cried or locked myself in the bathroom (sometimes all three at once) and felt so guilty because I thought I was damaging them for life. I just knew that they would have memories of their crazy momma, losing it. But you know what? They don’t even remember what the house we lived in looked like - much less the time I just walked out, leaving Aquaman to deal with three screaming babies. (That might have happened more than once - in more than one house.) If I had known how little they actually remember, I wouldn’t have stressed myself out so much!

If you could sum up your philosophy of this mid-stage of parenting into a fortune cookie, what would it say?  I actually saw this on a sign somewhere recently and I think it says it all:  “If you’re going to act like a turd, go lay in the yard.”

Such words of wisdom. I can’t stand to have a sulky, pouty kid around. And it doesn’t hurt to remind myself that sometimes my behavior is less than stellar and I should get out of my funk and get on with it.

What’s your favorite part of parenting teens?  I love that they are involved and interested in things that I can clearly remember doing or being interested in when I was their age.

I remember high school marching band vividly, so I’m able to understand what The Redhead has to do and what’s involved. When he lost it during summer band camp, overwhelmed and exhausted, I was able to pull great stories of band from my memory and give him an effective pep talk. And my stories from the good old days seem to amuse him.

The twins went to their first dance last weekend, and I remember being in 7th grade and having my first “boyfriend” and how awkward everything felt. I try to keep that in mind when they actually choose to share something with me. Being a teenager is hard. I think remembering that angst helps me as a parent.

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What’s your most challenging part of parenting teens?  Dealing with the attitude. When they just look at you with that blank stare, and you’re so worked up you could spit nails. Or when they don’t answer “Yes ma’am.” when I’ve called them or asked them to do something. It’s the most challenging when you know that you have taught them well - they know what they’re supposed to do - and they deliberately choose not to do whatever it is.

That “Woe is me” attitude that our boys have a lot also gets to me. “My life sucks. We never do anything. I never get to go anywhere. Do I have to?” That stuff. Drives me nuts. I always ask them, “How can you possibly act so spoiled? We’ve given you NOTHING!” They never think it’s funny.  

On a more serious note, their severe food allergies and asthma are a huge challenge. (Only Thing 1 isn’t at risk of anaphylactic shock and doesn’t have asthma.) As they get older, I am sometimes filled with dread knowing that they are away from me a lot and it is their responsibility to be careful about what they eat, what other people around them are eating, and how to respond if there’s an allergic reaction or asthma attack. When I hear stories on the news of the latest death from anaphylaxis or asthma, I just want to curl up in a dark room. That, or follow them around everywhere with an inhaler and an Epipen.

What have been your most successful family gatherings/activities with older kids? Going to the movies as a family has been the most enjoyable for everyone. We can typically rely on all 3 boys wanting to be there, agreeing on something to see, and sneaking candy into the theater hidden in my purse (we splurge on popcorn and drinks).

Once or twice a year, we’re able to read a book aloud together before it comes out as a movie. Then we usually go and see the movie the day it opens. (Right now we’re reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card - the movie comes out in November.) All of the things that we loved and discussed about the book are rehashed as it comes to the big screen. There’s nothing better than hearing your kid say, “The book was way better!” And there’s something about having that shared experience.

We try to read aloud every night - we’re more strict about that than all eating dinner together. We all love it, unlike some other family outings we’ve tried (like hiking or even meals where inevitably someone doesn’t like the food or doesn’t want to be there).

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What new routines or traditions have evolved as your kids have gotten older?  Elaborate homemade birthday cakes have become something expected as the boys have gotten older. It started out as a necessity - they have so many food allergies that the only way to have a birthday cake that they could eat was for me to make it. I kind of felt like I had to make it super special, since most folks were giving their kids store bought cake that would have some amazing designs or be over the top. But along the way, I got really good at cake decorating and it became something that everyone looked forward to. Now it’s tradition for each boy to request something challenging (for me) and very unique (for them) for their birthday cake. I’ve made everything from Spiderman, Hulk, and Monsters, Inc. to a snare drum and a shark.

Our reading aloud at night before bed has also evolved - it used to be board books and picture books. Then we graduated to early readers, chapter books - now we read pretty much anything. This summer we attempted World War Z but it just wasn’t made for reading aloud - too many sidebars and things set off in italics and different points of view. We still haven’t seen the movie, even though our boys are all about zombies.

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How and/or when do you connect with your teens best? Usually it’s when we’re watching something like Saturday Night Live. My maturity level is on par with a teenage boy’s when it comes to comedy, so we’re all good. We watch the skits and laugh and laugh and laugh. And we end up talking about current events and discovering new musicians.

When Seth Meyers (from SNL’s Weekend Update) came to the DFW area, we went and heard him speak. The Redhead loves him, but all of us had a great time - he was a really good speaker. Silly humor brings us together. Will Ferrell brings out the best in us. We watch Elf every single year before Christmas and then quote from it year round. Just this weekend, we were at a park and saw a raccoon walking on the ground. I looked at the boys and said, “Hey! What’s your name? My name’s Buddy.” Thing 2 didn’t even hesitate. “Does someone need a hug?” We all cracked up. (See clip here.)

 What is one thing you want your children to learn/understand before they leave home? I want them to know how to do their own laundry. Please God don’t let them go through life in stained underwear.

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 Any funny stories you can share about your kid(s) or mid-stage parenting?  We’ve been through alot the past few years - we moved from a very small town to the suburb of a huge metroplex. Not too long after the start of the school year after we moved, I quit my job teaching. I was waiting on the front porch when the boys got off the school bus. They were surprised to see me - I usually didn’t get home for several hours after they did.

“What are you doing home?” The Redhead asked as they walked up.

“I quit my job,” I announced. Out with it. No beating around the bush.

Thing 1 didn’t miss a beat. “Does that mean we can’t go out to eat anymore?” he asked.

“Maybe not as much,” I said.

I was prepared for all kinds of questions and anxiety from them. Ready to explain why I had to quit, why commuting and working somewhere that I didn’t feel appreciated had to end. How everything was going to be okay and we would be fine. How it was important for me to be home now that Dad was working out on boats for weeks at a time. I braced myself for the onslaught. Thing 2 looked like he had something to say. “Do you have a question, sweetie?” I asked him.

“Yes. Can you have a snack waiting for us every day when we get off the bus now?”

And there it is. A boy’s priorities.

They’re easy to love.


I love that Kate's family reads aloud every night. I want to do that. I'm big about jumping on a bandwagon and then falling off (and badly injuring myself). Well, badly injuring my pride anyway. But I'm going to pick up a book and climb up on that reading bandwagon anyway. I'm the boss around here. I'm in charge. And I want to READ!

Aside from being a thoughtful parent, Kate is a great essayist. You can read more stories about her family life here, here and here

Thanks Kate! 

 

Show me who you are

Back many years ago (*cough* 2008 *cough*), I started a parenting blog project called Letters to a Parent, a collection of letters by parents for parents about the art and practice of raising kids. Since I'm away from home today I thought I would share one of my favorite guest posts from that project, written by my aunt Annette when I asked her how she and her husband, Scott, approached raising her three (now grown) boys. I think you'll like it, too. I especially love her overarching approach of "show me who you are":


Scott and I had this parenting notion: Show me who you are. This was extremely helpful. When our sons showed us who they were - as they were figuring this out - they turned out to be delightful and talented people. Not one of them fit a preconceived notion of who they might be.

Photo via  You are My Wild

Photo via You are My Wild

Support their interestsWe did not make demands on Scout participation or certain athletics or after-school activities. We had only one "must" and it was that they must take piano lessons until they could accompany others. Each of them did this and we were amazed when they continued their lessons way beyond the point where we thought they would quit. As parents, we paid for a lot of lessons in several fields, drove them to their lessons until they could drive, and we attended every activity we could, which turned out to be most of them.

Photo via  You are My Wild

Photo via You are My Wild

Feed them and feed any of their friends, and let your home be the gathering place. This involves extra money and lots of late hours, but it was great having them know they could always invite friends over, and our home came to be known as a "safe place" to hang out, by kids and parents alike. As a result, we knew their friends well--and enjoyed the interaction. Also, one cannot underestimate what we learned while everyone was hanging out here. The casual eavesdropping opportunities were tremendous - so we had a pulse on what was going on with them and their friends. This also leads to another tip: drive them and their friends where they want to go. The parent at the wheel becomes invisible and SO MUCH info is dropped in the conversations.

Look for something to praise and compliment every single day - and then SAY it, don't just think it. Also tell them you love them whenever they walk out the door or end a call. Every single day. We always did this, but became extra-motivated when friends of ours lost their son in a car accident and were comforted knowing that the last words exchanged were, "I love you."

We are strong advocates of natural consequences for choices and behaviors. We also tried to be VERY consistent: we did what we said we would do (so we were careful about what we agreed to). Most of our house rules and policy evolved through a democratic family council method. Our boys had a lot to say about what happened in our home, even down to furniture choices.

Photo via  You are My Wild

Photo via You are My Wild

We granted them three (and only three) "saves" for each school year. They had to use these saves wisely - having us bring stuff to school they forgot, etc. This helped them to be responsible for their work. If they had to stay after school for detention - my coming to get them was a "save." Each son had only one detention in all their school years. But they each had one. Each usually used up their "saves" in a year. Now that they are grown, we have funny family stories about these.

Reflective listening is powerful and helps them know they are heard. This method also defuses arguments. As parents, we worked hard to listen and allow them to talk, then we'd feed back what we heard in a neutral tone of voice (sometimes hard to do): "You must feel very frustrated." "Wow, that must have been hard." "Yikes, what did you choose to do about THAT?"

Photo via  You are My Wild

Photo via You are My Wild

Have them check in with you when they come home. We always waited up for our kids, no matter how tired we were. They had to check in with us. We placed two comfy chairs at the end of our bed, and the kids developed a habit of dropping into those chairs or on the foot of our bed to talk about their night or day. Sometimes we would be there into the wee hours. We had an unspoken policy if they wanted to talk, we would listen (and stay awake).

Let them have complete stewardship of their rooms. I RARELY went in their rooms. Laundry was done only if it was delivered to the laundry room. Each of them went through a period when they lived wearing the clothes off their floor and sent their laundry down in huge heaps occasionally. If they wanted to keep the rooms messy, then that was their choice. (Choose your battles.)

Photo via  You are My Wild

Photo via You are My Wild

Which brings me to my final three tips for parenting teens:
Have fun with them every single week. We often had some family activity each week.
Laugh a lot. "Save the day with laughter," as Grandma taught.
Talk (and listen) a lot. Be sure to ask questions that cannot be answered with a grunt or shrug, a yes or no. Here are two good leads, "Tell me about..." or "How did you feel when...?"

Wow. I'm going on and on. It's kind of fun to think back on this and realize that a lot of this really worked. We still love each other. We’re friends. They are delightful and responsible adults with unique talents. I occasionally told them back then, and I've told them a few times since they've left home: I have many weaknesses and have made errors, but one thing I know about myself and about them is that I was a really good mother. They seem to believe my press statement.

Annette Paxman Bowen is the author of three books, including one about connecting with teens. She currently works as a public affairs director.


All photos in this post are used by permission from the fantastic photography project You Are My Wild. In their words: "You Are My Wild is a weekly portrait project that brings together 14 photographers to document how they see their children." It's a favorite internet stop for me every week. I love the loving lenses of these glimpses into family life around the world. It's definitely worth following.

The magic of a mother-daughter book group

Right before Lauren started sixth grade, our neighborhood librarian, Sharon, pulled me aside and invited us to join a mother-daughter book group she was putting together for sixth grade girls and their moms. It turned out to be one of the best things we did together in those middle school years. When Maddy hit those same years, we joined in another Sharon-led, mother-daughter book group. Those hours each month, leaning in around round tables in the after-hours library, were honest and illuminating times for me and my girls. 

It was such a lovely part of our mother-daughter relationship during those sometimes bumpy pre-teen and early teen years that I wanted to chat with Sharon again and see if I could share her with you. Enjoy this conversation with Sharon McCarrell, who graciously agreed to be interviewed about the magic of mother-daughter book groups and her insights on starting and running them. 

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What brought you to young adult (YA) fiction?

I am not sure why I love YA books as much as I do. I wasn’t a very happy adolescent, maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe I’m living it over and over again and trying to improve it after the fact, or trying at last to exorcise it. As a teenager I wasn’t bookish, I wasn’t particularly motivated academically, and although I always loved to read, my adolescence was much more marked by my passion for rock and roll music than by books.  I pretty much hated adolescence, like a lot of people, and didn’t want to go back to it and think about it after I was finally free of it.  And when I started buying YA books for the library, I wasn’t that engaged in the library’s YA collection. But I started reading some of the books, and something happened. I tapped into the “me” who was that adolescent, and I remembered how it felt.  I started seeing how even as a middle-aged woman, some of the books reached me in a place I had put away and preferred not to remember. Maybe I’m trying to heal that girl. Besides, some of the books are just fun to read! I think I might have been hoping a book would touch an adolescent girl in some way that might make the whole thing just a little bit easier to get through.

How did you come to have the idea to start book groups? How long have you been doing them?

About 10 or 15 years ago I decided to really beef up the [YA] collection, in the “if you build it they will come” approach. And in an effort to try to engage more kids in reading them, the mother/daughter book group idea seemed like it would be fun. The book group has been going for about 12 years. [Sharon starts a new one every year with 6th graders and then keeps each group going until around 8th grade.]

One of the things I love about the books is that they are often stories that revolve around the same things middle school or adolescence revolves around: What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to be different?  Can you be your true self? In fact, what does it meant to be yourself? What does it mean to go along?  To refuse to go along? What does it mean to stand up for something? To make decisions for yourself?  To speak up? To keep quiet? How can you be a friend? How can you rely on yourself? The stories often speak to these questions, even if they are wrapped up in a story about someone in another time, in another place, long ago or in a place that never existed, or a place and a time in the future.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the books started speaking to me.  And I started to want to share them! I hoped that being in a “neutral” location like the library, rather than in someone’s house, would make it a bit less casual and maybe a bit more focused, and that having one “facilitator” might work better. It was a sheer stroke of luck. It’s been just amazing….unforgettable, really.

Why middle school girls? 

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When people ask me why I like middle school kids so much, I really want to laugh. The middle school kids I interact with are NOT a cross section of middle school!  In the first place, the girls I recruit for my groups read so much that they don’t mind reading an extra book every month that they haven’t even chosen. They don’t mind coming to the library (not always every kid’s idea of the coolest place to hang around) in the evening, when they could be doing something else. They don’t mind hanging around there with their moms. They don’t mind talking about books in a group setting that is not school and is also not made up of people they might have chosen. There’s a little window of time when this moment occurs most happily. 6th and 7th grade seems perfect. Soon they will have too much homework. Soon there may be conflict with mom. These are extraordinary parameters…but then again, these are extraordinary girls.  And they also have moms who are not so busy that they are willing to read the books too, in the time frame, and come prepared to talk about a book they might not have chosen.  All I can say is…it’s magic.

Tell us some more about that magic. What’s special about spending that time together, discussing books and ideas?

Everything! The opportunity to hear the comparison of the point of view of a middle school girl in her understanding of the story with her mom’s is frequently amazing.  You know how you can have the best conversations with your daughter in the car, when you are both looking forward, and not at each other? This is like that sometimes. Often the girls will say something that they think about what happened in the book and I see the mom’s face go “wow.”  Sometimes the mom will say “when I was 13….” and I see the same look on the daughter’s face.

Yes! In my experience with two daughters participating at different times, the discussions become part book group, part therapy session! How do you lead discussions that help mothers and daughters navigate these transition years?

I often have conversations with the moms about the beauty of being able to talk about values or ideas in this non-direct way, when it’s a discussion about a character in a book, and what she might do or think, or the decisions she might make. No heavy “what would you do if” conversations, just “what do you think of what happened?” Some of the books have some hot button issues around the edges of the story that create an opportunity for a talk that is hard to figure out how to begin.

What do you think the girls and the mothers take away from these discussions?

"My hope is less that they enjoy talking about the books and more that they are laying down some empathy or human understanding--from the experience of talking with others about a person in a story or a connection that they might feel with or about a character--that they can bring to bear later on, in a real situation."

I don’t think I really have any understanding about what is the value of this whole thing for the girls, because they have a lot of this kind of thing at school. But I really understand the value of it for the moms, and for myself. It’s a little window into their world. The girls will sometimes bring up something that has happened at school or with a friend, and I can see them make connections from the books to real life. And in a town like this [a suburb of Boston], they have talked about books so much that they are pros at it.  But my hope is less that they enjoy talking about the books and more that they are laying down some empathy or human understanding--from the experience of talking with others about a person in a story or a connection that they might feel with or about a character--that they can bring to bear later on, in a real situation. Mostly when I think about middle school, I just think, anything has value that gets you from this point to a place later, where you can look back on going through it and say, “whew.”  Sometimes I think the books we read in the groups might be more valuable later, looking back, than they are when they are read by someone who is 12 or 13.

I hope to help create a place where they feel safe with what they think and what they feel, and I love watching it happen. I wish I could meet with these girls when they are older, and show them their younger selves, and see how it looks different at 16 or 18 than it did at 12.

Have the discussions changed over the years?

I’ve seen a change over the last few years, in some of the perspectives of the girls in these groups, in the same town. The girls seem to be more protected, more sheltered, more afraid of the world, and yet more unaware, than ten years ago. I sometimes hear someone in a group meeting say, “Oh, this couldn’t happen here.” And while of course they are right about plenty of the stories, it’s not right that in their sheltered worlds they have no friends dealing with divorce, with alcoholism, with domestic violence, with bullying. 

But I love their fierceness and their certainty. And I love that the moms get to hear from this girl who hasn’t yet gone into the minefield of teenhood. And I love it that they are putting these stories away for later.

You do this at night, holding the groups after hours after working a full day at the library. What keeps you coming back and starting another one, year after year?

I’ve been blessed to know these girls at this moment of their lives. They leave the [neighborhood] library soon after middle school, and they mostly use the high school library and the bigger main library, and I often don’t see them again. But I remember this particular time of their lives, and it’s such an honor for me to see them and know them, and their moms, for this brief period of time. I am not so sure what they get out of it, but it’s amazing for me, and when I’m not doing it anymore I think I will miss this more than almost anything else about working in the same library for so many years.

Thank you, Sharon, for being one of our favorite mentors and fearless guides in navigating the terrain of those years. We miss you. 


In case you're interested (or maybe considering starting a group of your own!), here are just a few of the books we read under Sharon's guidance:

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
A Mango Shaped Space
by Wendy Mass
Shiva's Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff
Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech
Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahams
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
Firehorse by Diane Lee Wilson
Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg
Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

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!