No Virginia, There is no Fountain of Youth

My oldest daughter recently turned 19 and is about to conclude her freshman year of college. I have many feelings associated with this milestone – excitement for her experiences, pride in what she has accomplished, sadness at how quickly the years have passed. And of course, there’s that recognition that if she’s now an adult, I’m beyond adulthood. Yes, I’m, by the standards I set myself as a 19-year old, OLD.  They say that 50 is the new 30. I’ll let you know how I really feel about that later this year, but in the meantime, let me just say that nothing makes you feel older in some ways than having a college freshman. You think it was just yesterday that you were living in the dorms, going to frat parties and rushing from class to class on a campus where it seemed the possibilities for your life were endless. But then you realize, ummm…that was actually a really long time ago.

Complicating the normal feelings that come with the aging process is our society’s continual worship of all things youthful and the ongoing pursuit of a magic elixir that will deliver us from old age.  While the concept of a fountain of youth is not new, it’s only in modern society – and primarily in the United States – where one finds such an obsession with staying young. This pursuit of continual youth is what sociologists would call a “First-World Problem”, given it can only occur among wealthy communities, where the worries of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head have been removed.

I think about this often in my little suburban world where it seems that Botox injections and breast implants are as commonplace as the common cold and where moms frequently wear the same outfits as their teenage daughters. What does it say about our society when people – mostly women, but increasingly (in Hollywood anyway), men – will spend thousands of dollars and put themselves through multiple, elective surgeries to chase eternal youth?

A few years ago, on a summer trip to Sweden to visit my husband’s family, we went to a local, community pool so my now-nineteen year old could get in a swim workout.  In the locker rooms, my two girls’ eyes were wide as saucers. They could not understand how every Swedish woman in the locker room – regardless of height, weight and most of all age – could walk around stark naked so comfortably and without the slightest trace of self-consciousness.  Having been raised in the modest (some might say repressed) US of A, I could not fully explain it either, except to tell my girls that 1) Swedes are much less hung up on nudity than we are (as one example, Swedish television is much more concerned with keeping violence off the screen than nudity and sex), and 2) Swedes, and the rest of the world, from my experience, are much more accepting of differences in body shapes and sizes as well as the aging process, and are much less focused on youth and beauty than we are in this country. Interestingly and despite all of this, Sweden seems to have a very high proportion of beautiful people, who age remarkably well.

The point is, my girls were used to seeing people all around them who fear the aging process and who will do anything to try to keep it at bay.  They are used to having the airbrushed images of fashion magazines and the nipped and tucked celebrities of television, movies and theater all around them.  And even in their own neighborhoods, they are used to seeing moms who fight the process daily with creams, treatments and injections, gym trips and diets, clothing from the junior department and yes, surgical procedures. Given these role models, it made me wonder, what messages were my girls hearing about what should be the very natural, and let’s face it –inevitable — process of aging?

I want to be clear that I am certainly not immune to vanity.  It’s hard to look in the mirror and see skin that suddenly sags where once it was firm and lines appearing on a forehead that was once smooth, not to mention those joints that creak and pop when I get out of bed in the morning. There’s definitely a reason I still wear bangs and buy more expensive bras. And I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t take care of yourself through healthy eating and exercise nor do I think it’s wrong to want to look attractive by wearing nice clothing, taking care of your skin, getting your hair done and using a little make-up.  But it seems to me, you have to draw the line somewhere because no one – no matter what they do – is immune to growing old. And by showing that we view the aging process as “bad” we’re sending a clear message to our kids to fight it– no matter how costly, how time-consuming, how risky or how ridiculous they may look. I say this also on the eve of my younger daughter going in for surgery and as I worry over the risks of anesthesia and the inevitable pain, I can’t help but wonder why anyone would put themselves through this by choice.

I was saddened to read the other day that one of my favorite actresses, Susan Sarandon, admitted to having plastic surgery.  . I realize in Hollywood, it must be hard to compete for great, female roles and the pressure to look young is intense. But I’d hoped that she’d hold out and continue sending the message that aging is ok, that her acting talents are more important than her image and that young girls should have strong, capable women who don’t run from life’s inevitable course as their role models.  I realize Susan is no Joan Rivers – yet.  But I think of plastic surgery as akin to remodeling a house. When you redo one room, the others look tired and run-down by comparison. So you do one more. But you can’t stop there, because the rest of the house doesn’t look as good as those brand-spanking new parts, right?  Next thing you know, you’ve re-done everything. Where does it stop? When you’re spending loads of time and money, and undergoing surgery that can put you at risk, just to prevent yourself from looking older or aging, you have to ask why and what message you’re sending. And if you’re a Mom, you have to wonder what you’re communicating to your kids about your priorities in life and how they should view themselves as they age.

The irony in all of this is that neither Susan Sarandon nor Joan Rivers has succeeded in hiding their age or stopping the aging process – and neither can you or I. The other day I was in the grocery store and saw what I thought was an attractive twenty-something ahead of me, pushing a grocery cart. She had long, flowing blond hair, a tall, lithe body and she was wearing leopard-print leggings, a close fitted tee, a short denim jacket and sky-high heels.  She stopped to grab a box of cereal off the shelf and I almost dropped my own groceries. This was no twenty-something; the woman had to be in her sixties which, despite the collagen lips, very obviously, face-lifted skin and fake breasts, to boot, was quite obvious. I suddenly realized the hair was fake (extensions), the body was courtesy of lipo plus lots of gym time and she’d clearly raided a middle schooler’s closet for her wardrobe. She looked ridiculous. An aging woman chasing dreams of being 19 again.

At the end of the day, you can get new breasts, lift your eyes, pump collagen into your lips and smooth out your wrinkles with Botox. You can wear your teenage daughter’s trendy clothes. But no one will think you’re 19, you still won’t be 19, and you never will be again.  I think that the sooner we can all face that fact and quit fighting it, the less “old” we’ll feel next to those actual 19 year-olds. And perhaps we’ll finally deserve the adage that with age, comes wisdom.

The One Thing You Should Never Give Up When You Become a Mom

As a popular post that has been making its way around Facebook proclaims, being a Mom means giving up many things, but it’s one of the most rewarding jobs you could ever have. When your children are small, it’s about giving up things like sleep, spontaneity and spending more than five minutes in the shower. In their teenage years it can mean giving up your ability to relax until you hear the car pull into the garage and when your kids are ready for college, it might mean giving up your retirement plans just to fund their tuition.

But there’s one thing you should never give up: yourself.

In a recent study of 1,300 moms, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that moms who work – either part-time or full-time – are healthier and happier. Now, I’m not about to fight the battle of working mom vs stay-at-home mom, as I truly believe that each family has to decide what works best for them, and certainly, I’ve known working moms who are miserable and stay-at-home moms who are very happy. But I think the study makes an important point about maintaining balance and a sense of self- something that working moms may find easier to do. It’s no surprise that the happiest stay-at-home moms I know are those who have something going on outside the home that is just for them whether it’s a hobby, a volunteer position or a pursuit of higher education. These moms almost always have good relationships with supportive spouses who share the parenting responsibilities, as well.

I don’t think there’s a mom out there who would argue with the idea that being a mom is their most important job. That said, as the APA study underscores, there’s a great danger in allowing your life to revolve solely around your kids.  And it turns out, this lifestyle is not only bad for you, but it wreaks havoc on your little ones, too. A recent article in the Huffington Post examined parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives and can’t let go – the so-called “helicopter” parents. Many moms think they are being great parents by doing everything for their kids and shielding them from the harsh realities of the world. While we all want to protect our children from truly bad situations, it turns out that if we shelter them from making mistakes and facing consequences, they will be ill-equipped to handle college life, job interviews and the day-to-day responsibilities of living on their own in our big, complex world.

So how do you determine if you’re sliding down this slippery slope of focusing so much on your kids that you lose yourself in the process?  I thought of a few questions that might be helpful…

1) Who was I before I had kids and who will I be when they are gone?  If you’re a working mom, you probably have an easier time with this question, as your daily life, by necessity, includes non-child related activities and your job is probably an important part of your identity.  There are plenty of stay-at-home moms who have successfully answered this question, too, finding a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction through volunteer work, classes to further their education or through hobbies that give them that important sense of self-accomplishment.  If you don’t have any of these things in your life and find that all you can think about and talk about are your kids, ask yourself: who was I before carpools, homework and diaper changes took over my life? Were you an avid reader? A passionate chef? A cyclist?  A theater-goer? You need to revisit the things that made you, YOU. After all, our most important job as parents is, ultimately, to transform our little jewels into successfully independent adults. And this depends on you letting them go — a task that will be much easier if there’s still a YOU left when they’re gone.

In addition, part of who you were pre-kids was probably a spouse or significant other and hopefully, it still is. But there are countless stories of marriages that end right after the last child moves out. Why? Because when your life revolves solely around your children, there’s no room for your relationship with your partner. Letting your relationship languish while the kids are still around means it will be difficult to pick up the pieces once they are gone. So make sure that the part of you that is separate from your mommy identity spends time with that other person who lives in your household.

2) Are you confusing your kids’ accomplishments with your own?  Social media has made it easy for the parents who live vicariously through their children to show their true colors. Facebook posts like “Johnny got straight As again!” or even worse, “WE got straight As again!” are the obvious red flags.

Now before you yell at me, I know, I know…it’s natural for us to take pleasure and satisfaction in our children’s accomplishments (and sorrow in their defeat) – that’s part of the joy (and grief) of parenting. And it’s natural to want to brag a little when your kids accomplish truly great things – I am as guilty as anyone on that count. But if you find you’re touting only your children’s activities and accomplishments as if they were your own and have nothing to say that begins with the word “I”, it’s time to ask yourself what you’ve accomplished lately that didn’t involve your child.

3) If you’re a Mom, you’re a role model…but what are you modeling?  In a previous post, I talked about the problem with the “do as I say, not as I do” mentality and why, if you want your kids to exercise for example, you need to show them that it’s important to you, too, by letting them see you sweat occasionally.  Similarly, as your child’s primary role model, day in and day out, shouldn’t you consider what behaviors you are modeling that will help your child become an interesting, successful and independent adult? Do you have a variety of interests outside of what your kids do everyday? Do they see you working, reading, attending classes, volunteering, voting, supporting causes, being interested in the world at large?  Do they see you going out with friends and most of all, your significant other, thereby modeling what good relationships look like?   It’s pretty clear that what we parents view as important has a profound impact on what our children view as important. If you have no interests outside of your children, what are you modeling for them?

4) If you do it all, how will they learn to do it for themselves?  Having a laser focus on your kids can become a problem for them, as well as you. Let’s say your child is in 6th grade and you still wake her up every morning, pick out her clothes for her, make her breakfast, pack her lunch and check her backpack to be sure she has everything she needs. Let’s say she calls from school to tell you she has forgotten an English paper and you rush over to deliver it, lest she face the teacher’s wrath or have points taken off for a late assignment. And let’s imagine that after school, when you’ve questioned her about her day, checked through her backpack to see what she has for homework and then taken her back and forth to dance or soccer or whatever her activity of choice may be, you spend the evening researching summer camps, and emailing her teachers and coaches to find out how she’s doing.

While this case study is fictional, I’m certain it’s not too far off of some real-life examples. The point is when you look at this day, you can see there is no YOU in it. More importantly, there is no opportunity for your child to learn, take responsibility and yes, fail, because after all, making mistakes in life is how we learn.

I wouldn’t give up being a mom for anything and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. But I love that it’s one of many hats I wear and that my kids know that I’m also a spouse, a friend, a reader, a writer, a marketing consultant, a student and many more things. To me, one of the greatest joys of parenthood is watching my own kids try on different hats as they evolve into independent adults with their own complex and many-faceted identities. I sure hope that if and when they become moms themselves and realize the sacrifices required, they’ll be sure not to sacrifice the one thing they shouldn’t – themselves.

Let the Games Begin…The Hunger Games, That Is

I know, I can hear you sighing and see the rolling of your eyes already. If you’re the parent of a child who falls into the Young Adult novel demographic, you’re already tired of hearing about the latest blockbuster trilogy premiering this week in a theater near you. Hell, you’re probably recovering right now, giant cup of coffee in hand, promising yourself you’ll never give in to your child’s pleading to attend a midnight premier ever again.

If you don’t have a child of a certain age in your household, you’re wondering what the hype is all about and why you should care.

So, I’m here to tell you why: because The Hunger Games is a great story. Fans of War and Peace and The Corrections (I can see Franzen cringing at the notion of Suzanne Collins’ books sitting next to his on Oprah’s bookshelf) alike: I’m talking to you, too.  This is a damn good story.

Let me add that I also enjoyed all four Twilight books. You do not need to be a “young adult” to enjoy good YA fiction. And if you’re a parent whose children enjoyed these books, you have even more compelling reasons to pick them up yourself.

Here’s why you – and by you, I include PhDs in English literature, along with fans of People Magazine – should read The Hunger Games:

1)    Everyone loves a good story. As Lisa Cron, author of the forthcoming Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence explains so articulately in her recent NY Times op ed, it’s not the “exquisite sentences and breathtaking images” that grab us when we read a novel, but “a sense of urgency and the desire to know what happens next”.  It’s the story itself that hooks us, no matter how beautifully written or how advanced the vocabulary. I dare you to read the first page of The Hunger Games and not want to keep going.

2)    Connect with your kids and be a role model. We all want our kids to read, right? The best way to encourage your kids to read is to be a role model for reading yourself. I think we can all agree that the old “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t a stellar parenting strategy. Doctors will tell you that if you want your kids to eat right and exercise, you have to put down the potato chips and get off the couch yourself.  Let your kids see you reading and they’ll know it’s a priority for you, something you value and deem important. I would go one step further and say that it’s even better when you take an interest in what they’re reading and can discuss it with them. So if they’re devouring The Hunger Games series, maybe you should take a look, too, and see what all the fuss is about.

3)    Tackle important issues in a context kids can understand. The great thing about YA fiction is that the best of it can present important social and cultural topics in a way that kids find interesting and can relate to. It also gives parents a perfect opening to discuss important topics. The Hunger Games presents a dystopian world in which a big brother-like Capitol pits young “tributes” from districts of differing socio-economic levels against each other in a widely hyped and televised fight to the death. This fictional world raises so many relevant real-world issues from personal liberties to war and violence, from hunger and poverty to the role of the media and “image-making” in our lives. Furthermore, the hero of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, is a young female.  In a political realm where women’s rights are being increasingly threatened and young girls have to sift through a pop culture wasteland of Jersey Shore and The Kardashians, to seek real female role models, a heroine like Katniss is a welcome figure.

So tonight, I’ll be braving the crowds at our local theater with my 13-year old daughter and her friend and I’m honestly not sure who is more excited to see how Collins’ vision is translated to the big screen. Either way, I know we’ll have much to talk about on the car ride home.

Get on board the technology train…or get left behind.

If you have a teenager in your house, you probably don’t need this Los Angeles Times article to confirm that teens are texting more and using traditional phone calls less. Use of land lines is rapidly declining, given the ubiquity of smartphones in every household, and teens are leading the charge when it comes to use of social media like Facebook and Twitter – not surprising to anyone who has 12-18 year olds in their home. The question is, are you using these tools yourself and if not, why?

I have a friend – let’s call her Margie – who refuses to participate in any social media. She has declined to join Facebook or Twitter and doesn’t even like email because “it’s all one big time-suck” and she isn’t interested in connecting with “ex-boyfriends from high school” or “posting personal stuff”. Fair enough. Those of us who use social media or have children who do, know that it certainly can be a huge waste of time and must be monitored. As for connecting with people from your past you’d rather not talk to or posting personal information you’d rather not share, I’d argue that is all at the discretion of the user – you can choose not to accept requests to connect and not to post things you’d rather not share. The thing is, I can’t help but feel that my friend is missing out on a valuable opportunity to understand and connect with her kids (and others), not to mention, protect her little ones from the dangers of the cybersphere.

Let’s use another example from a population even more reluctant to connect: seniors. I’ve been trying to convince my Dad to use email, join Facebook or just play with a computer for years.  He has the computer-phobia that is typical for many of his generation, a fear of “breaking” the computer if he touches it. I’ve tried explaining that he really can’t “break” anything, but his fear of the new and unfamiliar is hard to overcome. Since my kids and I rarely have time for a weekly two-hour phone call to fill him in on our lives – particularly now that my oldest is in college – I can’t help but feel that he, too, is missing out on a valuable means of staying connected with us.

For anyone who has been shying away from the technology of the 21st century, as Margie and my Dad have, I’d like to offer three good reasons why you should move forward and jump into the fray:

1)    Your kids need guidance and protection as they navigate the cyber world. It’s hard to protect your kids from something you, yourself, don’t understand.  If you aren’t familiar with how Facebook works, how can you provide the proper guidance so your children learn to use it wisely?  I know many parents who signed up for Facebook so they could be ‘friends” with their children, but don’t really understand how to use it themselves. They haven’t figured out, for example, that simply being friends with their children doesn’t mean they are seeing everything that is posted to their kids’ Facebook wall. In an age of cyber-bullying and Internet predators, it goes without saying that you want to make sure your kids are safe in cyberspace and are acting as responsible cyber citizens themselves. But did you also know that colleges and employers now routinely patrol applicants’ Facebook pages and other social media to ensure they know just who they are accepting/hiring?  At the university where my daughter is a student-athlete, the athletic department actually employs a full-time person to monitor the athletes’ social media, ensuring that they don’t post inappropriate content. Furthermore, a recent AP story reported that some employers want to require applicants to hand over their Facebook, Linked In and other social media passwords before they will hire them. This may be an overreach (not to mention, an invasion of privacy), but it points to the importance of teaching your kids how to properly use social media. If you don’t know the ins and outs of using it, how can you possibly impart those skills to them?

2)    Technology can actually bring you closer to those you love. It may seem counter-intuitive, but technology can bring you closer to the people in your life. I’m a big believer in putting away the cell phones and turning off the TV every night at dinner, and spending time with your family and friends away from phones and computers. That said, technology can absolutely help you stay in touch and feel connected to your family, friends and community.  Now that my oldest is away at school, I’m so thankful for texting, Twitter, Facebook and Skype – all of which have helped me embrace her independence and still feel that I’m a part of her life.  My husband’s parents – at the ripe old ages of 82 and 89 – recently acquired an iPad and began using Facebook. They are thrilled to be a part of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives in ways they never were before – viewing videos of their grandkids’ swim meets, photos of school events, skyping with them so they can actually see how much they’ve grown since the last visit, and conversing via email or Facebook posts whenever they want, with no concern for the 9-hour time difference. While all of this technology can’t replace a face-to-face visit, it certainly helps to fill in the gaps between visits in a way that wasn’t possible twenty years ago.

3)    Technology keeps you informed, can help your business, and it’s fun!  Despite my 20+ years in technology, I’m pretty traditional. I still like to read the Sunday paper – in print – with my coffee and I still buy hard cover books. That said, I love that when I’m traveling, I can sit in the airport and scroll through my Twitter-feed and very quickly get up-to-speed on the news of the day. There’s a reason why so many companies worldwide now employ social media directors – entire social media departments, in fact – to use and manage these tools. These organizations have discovered that Facebook, Twitter and the like can connect them with customers, partners and clients, and can help get their message out quickly and cost-effectively. Finally, technology is just plain, fun. Why else would your kids want to spend hours of their time on their laptops, smartphones and tablets surfing the web, tweeting, posting photos on Instagram and using Facebook chat?  I’m not suggesting you let them have free reign, of course, nor should you use technology unchecked. Technology can be addicting, as this San Francisco Chronicle article points out, and most kids are using smartphones and social media long before they are emotionally and intellectually ready to handle the responsibility. That’s why it’s so important for you to not only understand and guide their technology usage, but to be a good role model in your own use of technology.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure I’ll convince Margie to join Facebook or my Dad to try Skype, but there’s no question in my mind that the technology train has left the station, and those willing to take a ride will benefit the most.

Introducing Suburban Dirt

Welcome to Suburban Dirt, a blog about the trials, tribulations and perspectives of a working mom in suburbia. With this blog, I hope to share my unique views on a number of topics including the challenges of parenting in today’s modern, suburban world.

I’m a PR/marketing professional by trade, a writer and mother of two teen-aged girls, 19 and nearly 14. Though born and raised here in the U.S.,  I’ve been married to a Swede for more than 25 years and therefore, have developed a love of green marzipan frosting, Akvavit and free healthcare (although still not an Abba fan).

My day job for the past 20 years has involved developing corporate communications programs for technology companies like Cisco, IBM, Boeing and start-ups too numerous to count.  I like my day job and it certainly pays the bills — not to mention, keeps me up-to-date on the latest technological innovations – a very important factor in parenting today’s tech savvy kids. That said, my true passions are fiction writing, literature and music.  I was also a fitness instructor for 20+ years and if my poor, aging hips and back had cooperated, I might still be barking orders from a step or spin bike. Instead, I placate myself with weekly Pilates sessions and walking around my beautiful, Southern California suburb with our German Shepard puppy.

I’m a fan of college sports (UCLA and anyone playing USC), swimming (sport of choice for my girls), The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, movies and Dave Matthews Band concerts, and I’m a bit of a political junkie. So fair warning that all these topics and more may arise in my blog posts from time to time. I’m also a published short story author and an aspiring novelist, so this blog is definitely another outlet for a mind that has a bit more creativity than can be expressed in a standard product press release.

I hope you enjoy my perspectives, musings and, yes, occasional rants.