Senior Vice President at a global organization dedicated to helping children and communities thrive. Mother of four boys. Wife to my beloved husband. No time left for much else.
Senior Vice President at a global organization dedicated to helping children and communities thrive. Mother of four boys. Wife to my beloved husband. No time left for much else.
The police car sat in the alley behind our house. There were no sirens, which was a good sign. But I knew it was a bad sign when Thomas came into the house, shaking, telling me that the officer inside the car wanted to speak with me.
The episode started when Thomas and Alec asked me if they could ride their bikes to the market up the street. They were about seven and nine. We had no food in the house, having just returned the night before from a summer in London. I couldn’t leave since I was waiting for a furniture mover to come help me shift their bunk beds. My mother was visiting and was helping with the younger two. As usual semi-organized chaos.
I hesitated to send them but figured they would be together. They were taking their bikes so they would be home soon. At the last minute Alec decided to drop out and I reluctantly agreed that Thomas could go on his own. He decided to walk rather than ride his bike and I felt a little better about that since I worried less that a car would hit him.
A short time later I wondered why he wasn’t back yet. Soon after that I stopped what I was doing to ask Alec if he had seen Thomas. A while later I began to get that panicky feeling that all parents know. It starts with a pressure in your chest and then spreads to your limbs making them feel so heavy you aren’t sure you can move. All the while my thoughts were racing imagining horrible scenarios and wondering how I could have been so stupid to let my child head off into harm’s way.
As I was about to drive the route to the market to look for him, he walked in telling me there was a police officer outside waiting to talk with me. I immediately thought he must have stolen something at the market. He had never done anything like that but it was the only reason I could think for a police car to be outside.
I walked out the back door to the police car parked in the alley and the officer started shouting at me saying that it was dangerous for kids to be going around on their own. Did I know that my son was out walking without any ID or a phone? I wanted to ask what seven year old had a phone and if I was supposed to attach his birth certificate around his neck as ID since he didn’t have a driver’s license yet, but it was clear I wasn’t doing the talking here. He had me go back inside for my own driver’s license and he took down the details. I thanked him for alerting me to dangers I hadn’t considered and went back inside to take care of Thomas, wondering if I would be hauled away as an unfit mother. There were so many other worse examples of my parenting that I thought it would be ironic if this was the one that took me down.
Inside I found my mother talking with Thomas trying to downplay the whole thing by telling him how lucky he was to get a police escort home. She’s always one to find the bright side. She was laughing about the whole thing. I told her that if I was prosecuted for this I was going to be sure to pinpoint her parenting skills as the cause of my deficits since I learned these “trust your kid” approaches from her. She used to let me walk through the woods to a tennis club at least a mile away when all the other kids I knew had to be driven.
It turned out that the policeman had spotted Thomas as he walked to the market. The officer thought he looked too young to be out on his own so waited for him to go into the market and when Thomas came out, he slowly drove behind him all the way home. Thomas was aware he was being followed and felt increasingly terrified with each step, not sure of what he had done wrong. At the point he reached home that’s when the officer told him to go get one of his parents.
That Monday at school Thomas had an awesome weekend news story to share with his class, complete with a picture he drew of him walking and the police car following behind. Even though I thought it was overkill, I’m grateful for the police officer that alerted me to things I hadn’t considered in our neighborhood. I bought Thomas and Alec cell phones and will continue to send them out into the world. Nothing can change my view that children need independence to thrive.
My kids have a phrase that they use when faced with a problem they are lucky to have: First World Problems. I love this phrase since it suggests that we have been successful in providing for them, and that they appreciate that the life they lead isn’t one everyone gets to have.
But I also hate this phrase since it is a reminder of the growing divide between people who have so much and people who have so little, and the shrinking space in between those two groups for common ground and dialogue.
My local community listserve is a wonderful catalogue of First World Problems:
“Hamster looking for good home.”
“How to propagate an azalea?”
“Found: debit card.”
“Free: Crate and Barrel couch.”
“Need grooming for older dogs.”
“Where to buy a quiche for a large group?”
Our experiences living overseas have enabled our kids to witness first hand how challenging life can be for people who through no fault of their own aren’t able to get ahead. As I’ve told the kids: talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not.
While we were living in Zambia, one of our sons got invited to a tennis match with a group I think so highly of, Serving Zambia. I didn’t know much about the group when he climbed onto the public bus to head to the Copperbelt for the weekend tournament. But I knew and respected the three Zambian coaches and was sure he was in good hands.
Our first indication of the deprivation some of these kids faced came when I made banana muffins for the group of kids traveling. I didn’t think twice about this because it was the norm in our school in the US. I found out later it was the only meal some of these kids had that day.
The lodging for the tournament was pretty rough and ready but complete luxury for these kids. My son had an amazing opportunity to learn what a great equalizer tennis is when he saw that kids who had so few advantages served up a mean backhand or a killer slice. He came back saying how much he had to learn from them. I reminded him that they had developed this tennis talent against all odds and thanks to the coaches and the Serving Zambia program that encouraged them through tennis to stay in school. They had brighter futures as a result. And they had coaches who were mentors to them, modeling success when they knew few other examples of it.
On the bus ride home, my son shared his snacks I had packed with one of the market women who had gotten on board with her fruit and veg. She in turn shared fresh fruit with him.
After the weekend ended and I went to my own tennis lesson with one of the coaches, I learned that as he and the other coaches were accompanying the kids back to their homes from the bus depot, they discovered some had no parents around or any other adult care, they lived without water or electricity, and the family financial pressures meant they were perilously close to being on the street. Serving Zambia provided a safe space for the kids to play after school, and allowed the parents some financial relief through prizes distributed in cash or kind.
I spent the rest of my lesson on the verge of tears, thinking of these kids without any kind of care and struggling to find safe harbor. I could see that Serving Zambia would be a wonderful place for them to land.
http://www.servingzambia.orgWe began buying shoes for the kids to help them get to school, collecting racquets and tennis gear for distribution, and soliciting small gifts that could be handed out as prizes. These were such small efforts and always they were dwarfed by the need. But they were reminders for me and for the kids that we were so very fortunate to have First World Problems. And we saw that we had a lot to learn from the resilience and perseverance of those kids who struggled with much greater problems.
On Mother’s Day, here’s a shout out to the nannies in the world. Only the good ones of course. Not the one who just quit our house last Monday after committing to two years, minimum, and then suddenly changing plans to go back to grad school in the fall. And I’d probably leave off the list the one who could only arrange flowers and slept on the job since she was dealing with her own son’s heroin addiction. The jury is out on the one who secretly got married without telling us while we were sponsoring her visa. Would definitely not welcome back the one who let Jack skateboard naked down the driveway, scraping all the skin off his upper thigh as he fell. And probably pretty safe to say we wouldn’t invite back the one who ran errands to the Apple Store or did her laundry on the job while charging us $25 per hour. But the rest of our nannies, without question, added tremendous value.
A good nanny is hard to find and when found, should be kept as close to your heart as your child. Nannies are not a proxy for parents. But they are a critical part of the work-life balance that makes grown ups sane and good parents.
Nannies aren’t family. They are valuable employees and should be treated as such. Health care. Regular raises. Gifts on special occasions. And zero tolerance for a hostile work environment created by kids who think they can disrespect their nanny. Swift justice is the only way to deal with that.
We have had so many nannies over the years and the good ones have given our children a perspective on life that they would otherwise never have had. We have never taken them for granted. We haven’t always been an easy family to support but the ones who understood that and figured out how to do it hopefully found their reward.
None of us can speak of our nanny from Zambia without getting misty eyed. The nannies we had in Vietnam taught us so much about the country and the way things worked. They gave the children Vietnamese lessons so our second son learned Vietnamese alongside English and I had to ask them to translate what he was saying to me. Our temporary British nannies during summers in the UK were fabulous though one was actually Australian living in London but she made such a mean candy Tower Bridge and chocolate Thames River that it was easy to lose sight of that.
Like any relationship, the nanny-family one must be re-evaluated on a regular basis to see if it serves both parties well. When it doesn’t, it is critical to cut ties respectfully. When the relationship works, life unfolds smoothly.
Thank you to all the nannies who work so hard to help with the kids, give the moms and dads a break, and support the development of little people (or big people) who learn from your example. Your contribution is critical and without you, none of us could do what we do.
On this Mother’s Day, let me thank you for making me a better mother.
On Friday, the kids’ school hosted “Mothers’ Visiting Day.” It’s tailor made for picture perfect families. The headmaster makes inspiring remarks, the mothers’ association discusses all the activities they do on campus, the choirs sing, and then the adoring mothers follow their accomplished sons (this is an all boys school) around campus. There’s even a professional photographer stationed around the mascot so you can have family photos taken.
Here’s how it went down for us. I had stayed up really late the night before and drank two very large glasses of wine, since our monthly wine delivery had arrived that day. It seemed a perfect way to kick off a long weekend since I was taking the day off for “Mothers’ Visiting Day.” In spite of that, I woke up very early to have a work call with colleagues in Ghana, and when I hung up the phone it was time for all of us to head out the door. The net result of the wine, the lack of sleep, and no time to put on make up meant that I had small slits for eyes and looked very unlike the perfect mothers whose toned bodies and bright eyes put me to shame.
In a surprising move of organization, I had asked the older boys the night before which classes I should observe, since I needed to divide my time between the upper and lower school. One didn’t care and the other had a clear plan. When I shared with Luke when I would be coming to the lower school, he sobbed and said “I thought you were spending the whole time with me.” Such a metaphor for life with multiple kids. No matter what you do it is never enough. Erma Bombeck once said that your favorite child is the one who needs you the most. I’m not sure Luke needed me the most but he definitely wanted me the most. With a lot of effort, I thought we negotiated a good plan.
But when the assembly ended and we were making our way to the Upper School and I tried to say goodbye to Luke, he cried. Other mothers saw what was happening and tried to take Luke under their wing, which made Luke want me more since he’s an introvert. He clung on to me while Thomas called me to follow him to the classroom, and I feared letting go of Luke almost as much as losing Thomas in the crowd and not knowing how to find his class. We were not off to a good start.
I finally calmed Luke and made my way with Thomas to science where we were learning about seismic waves and tsunamis, and did a very cool experiment with Slinkys that I didn’t understand one bit. But I loved the teacher since he could sing the Slinky ad jingle and I figured any man who remembers that “Slinkys are fun for girls and boys” probably knows a thing or two. All was going well until I took a picture of the cool graphs and accidentally hit the Siri button on my IPhone. Twice. Thomas really lost it when I glanced at my emails after posting the photo on Facebook and said I wasn’t paying attention. With the amount of money I’m paying for his tuition I thought I had a free pass.
I hobbled down to the lower school on my stilettos, having ignored the school’s advice to wear comfortable shoes, to play “Math Jeopardy” with Luke and prayed that the answers the boys came up with in our group were right because I had no idea how many more flowers Tim bought for his mother than David. I just hoped the moms in the word problems weren’t getting carnations since it didn’t seem like the kids had a lot of money.
Alec’s classes were fun and his Spanish class included a profound poem written by a Nobel Laureate at the end of his life. He was lamenting his choices and said that if he could live life again he would walk barefoot more, eat ice cream instead of beans, and admire the sunset. As we made our way to the dining hall for a school lunch, I kicked off my shoes and felt the spring grass and warm earth under my feet. I put extra cheese on my plate even when all the other moms had salad, and I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon with the boys, all the way until the sun set on the school lacrosse game. I didn’t even freak out when Thomas peeled off for a last minute birthday party and missed the family photo by the mascot, or when Luke climbed the mascot to stand beside the bear rather than on the ground next to it. No matter how imperfect we are, I will never live to say I regret a single one of our choices.
My mother always taught me to write a thank you letter within 24 hours of receiving a gift. So thank you to the entire team who put on the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop. Thank you to the Bombecks, the inspiring faculty, the gracious team who ran the seamless logistics, the energizing students who reminded me why I love UD, and the supportive community that’s filling up my Facebook News Feed.
But there’s one thank you that is 25 years late, and that’s to Teri Rizvi, the founder and co-Director of the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop. I owe Teri a debt of gratitude for what she has created with the workshop, but the deeper and more profound debt is for the role she played in my professional and personal development.
I first met Teri in the late 1980s when I was an undergraduate English major at UD determined to become a writer. And a professional woman. Teri was both and I had never met either. Before we all knew what it meant to “lean in” Teri blazed a trail and many of us hoped to follow.
She didn’t just create her own path; she paved the way for others. She hired me to work on the UD publications, and helped me to find local freelance writing opportunities. She encouraged me to take on a freelance writing gig for what was then the Education Life Section of the New York Times.
When I moved to Sierra Leone after graduating, Teri encouraged me to keep writing and always welcomed me back to the office for visits, allowing me to connect with other mentors and friends there long after my employment ended.
Teri didn’t just run the office. She had a family. And I looked at her as a living and breathing example of someone who was balancing the two things I was told I had to choose between: career or family.
I was living in Vietnam juggling my own job and two children when I got a UD alumni publication that announced that Teri was resigning and I have a vague recollection of reading a piece she wrote about wanting more time to focus on family. I freaked out. If Teri, the trailblazer, couldn’t do this balancing act what hope was there for the rest of us?
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on my account, though I did really appreciate it, when Teri returned to her role. Years later, I appreciated her choice in different ways realizing that in thinking of leaving her job she was once again charting her own course and figuring it out for herself, not letting others define things for her. I tried to take several pages from that book.
I started a blog a few months ago and Teri was one of the five people reading it (the other four are my boys to make sure I don’t embarrass them). She encouraged me to come to the workshop, and found me in the halls at a particularly low point of feeling daunted by the prospect of finally writing the book I have always wanted to write (which now apparently requires a dedicated social media platform to prove to editors I have a following).
She said to me the same words she said to me 25 years ago. “You can write.”
Thank you Teri. For everything.
Jack raced into the kitchen for one more hug before I headed out the front door and on to the airport. “Wait, wait!” he cried. I hesitated since we had already missed our original flight due to a snowstorm in Denver where we were headed. The older boys and I were ducking out for a week of spring skiing while I left Robin behind with the younger two. I needed to be on that flight.
But I stopped and gave him another hug, and then he frantically starting looking for pencil and paper. He dug in our junk drawer and miraculously surfaced what he needed. As I said goodbye he told me not to go yet. “I have to get on the plane, Jack.” As I was talking he was writing the smallest note on a scrap of paper and stuffing it into a bright yellow plastic Easter Egg. He handed it to me.
I pulled out the slip of paper that read “I love you” and my hurry to get out the door evaporated. There’s no greater gift than having children who want to be with you. And that gift expires around age 14 I’ve discovered, and gets a little stale around 11-13. But age 6. That’s a golden year. You can generally do no wrong, you are welcome at school, and if you play your cards right, you will be the Valentine on Valentine’s Day.
In light of this, I wondered why I was taking my 15 and 14 year-old Snapchat addicts all the way across the country when chances were slim that they would speak to me much less write me love notes. But I also knew it was precisely because of this that the trip was so important.
Skiing is one of the few times where I can disconnect from work and life, generally because the mountain elevation cuts into internet signals (though it’s actually pretty solid this year). And a week together to reconnect was worth way more than the exorbitant cost of the trip.
Watching these two teenagers race down the mountain at one of the places where they learned to ski years ago made me really nostalgic for the little boys they once were. But watching them Facetime friends with ski reports, and Snapchat their social network every break we took, made me excited for the young men they were becoming. They have a great group of friends, and are funny and witty and kind and talented. It will be a blink of an eye before I truly have to let them go and launch them into the world. But for now, I’m just keeping them close (except when they peel off to the Black Diamond slopes) and feeling eternally grateful to have them.
In our family, we have a rule that says, “No peeing from a balcony into a swimming pool.” We didn’t always have that rule. But one morning when I was seven and a half months pregnant with my third boy, I woke up to what I thought was rain coming down quite heavily.
We were at a stunning private island resort off the coast of Vietnam. We had booked this special villa complete with its own plunge pool as a last hurrah before we moved back to the US after living four years in Hanoi.
I heard the noises and rolled over to look out the window but all I saw was the gorgeous sunshine signaling another day in paradise. I drifted back to sleep when I heard giggling and more rain. I could tell the noise was coming from my two boys, ages four and six, who were supposed to be sleeping in their upstairs bedroom attached to that balcony.
I silently cursed my husband who heard none of this and then dragged my very pregnant self up the stairs to see what was going on. At the top of the stairs I found both boys leaning through the narrow slots in the wrought iron railing so they could perfect their aim to the pool below. The same pool that I had intended to float in weightless for the remainder of the day.
“What do you think you are doing?” I shouted. They gave me a blank stare.
“Are you crazy? You can’t behave this way. You’re grounded.”
That’s when I knew I had gone nuts since you can’t really ground a four and six year old who can’t go out without you. And grounding someone who is on a desert island holed up in a private villa that no one wants to leave is no sort of punishment.
But before I could rethink my choice, my six year old said to me “You can’t ground us. We didn’t break any rules. You never said we couldn’t pee into pools from the balcony. That’s not fair.”
That stopped me cold. As the daughter of a judge I valued fairness above many things. He had a point. And now we have a rule.
Mwuaka bwanji madala?”
“Bwino. Mwauka bwanji?”
“Mugone bwino, mzungu?”
“Mugone bwino maningi.”
“How are you this morning old man?”
“I’m well. How are you?
“How did you sleep, my boy?”
“I slept very well.”
What you just read was a part of my daily routine. This was my first interaction every morning with Mr. Phiri before he drove me to school. Mr. Phiri was our family’s driver in Zambia and in the years we lived there, he became a part of our extended family. He was a native Zambian, born in a village in the Petauke district of the Eastern Province in Zambia. I know this because he often, very patriotically, explained how the Eastern Province was the “heart of Zambia,” “the wood that burns the fire of Zambia,” or some other analogy expressing his pride for the Eastern Province. He was an ambassador for Zambian culture and certainly embodied many values Zambians hold dear. From my innumerable rides with Mr. Phiri, I have distilled his many teachings and lessons down to three core values, which I like to call “Mr. Phiri’s Guide to Life.”
Core Value One: On my rides with Mr. Phiri, I learned the importance of respect. Mr. Phiri began every morning trip to school by greeting me, a vital foundation of any exchange in African culture. Before the key even entered the ignition of the Toyota Land Cruiser, a handshake followed by a “Mwuaka bwanji” or a “Mulibwanji” was traded. This didn’t always have to be a formal “Hello,” but it did need to be something which acknowledged each other’s presence. I appreciated, and in some ways looked forward to, these daily encounters because they made me feel less like the typical American expat and more like a member of the Zambian community.
Core Value Two: Mr. Phiri taught me the importance of being frugal. Frugality is the simple act of managing resources well, or being savvy with what you have. On my rides with Mr. Phiri, he told me about how he wanted to install a roof and windows on his house. When I asked him what he did when it rained, he said that he used plastic bags. He talked to my parents and received a year’s salary in advance, forgoing a monthly paycheck, in order to buy the sheet metal and other materials for this project. When he finished, I knew that he was conscious about paying back the loan. I noticed that he kept receipts in his armrest for these various transactions. I asked him about it, and he told me that he kept track of every kwacha that he spent. He paid back the loan a little bit at a time, and while he was doing that, I knew that he was being extremely prudent. This taught me not to take for granted things I could afford, because I could see that others may not be able to afford the same. At that time, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness consume me because I realized that Mr. Phiri didn’t have much money. I understand now, he didn’t need my pity. Through his frugality, Mr. Phiri was a self-sufficient man, one that I can only aspire to become.
Core Value Three: On my rides with Mr. Phiri, I learned the importance of discipline. It may sound absurd, but there was actually a sort of unofficial driver’s “society” in Lusaka. One of the unspoken rules of this society was “dress to impress.” At the end of each laborious school day, I emerged from the halls on campus to find Mr. Phiri. His clean-shaven face sported sleek glasses that accentuated his old eyes. He often wore his favorite conservative yellow and white striped button-down shirt tucked into a pair of grey Dockers with a belt buckled at his waist. He stood next to a bleached-white car, which he washed twice a day. I was impressed by Mr. Phiri’s meticulous habits, which were the result of extreme dedication and pride in his work. I will never forget one of the adages he often said: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
This man, Mr. Phiri, etched a lasting impression in my life and taught me principles to live by. It’s important to remember to keep an open mind and learn from everyone around you–even those whom you least expect will impact your life. The values I learned on those rides with Mr. Phiri are certainly active in my life today. When I meet my friends and family, I try to remember to offer a friendly greeting and acknowledge the respect I have for them. I try to remember not to carelessly expend the resources available to me, which I am fortunate enough to enjoy. And I try to remember to take pride in my work, even the little details, or as Mr. Phiri would say “The scratches in the bumper.”
My second son just turned 13. This is a huge milestone for any kid. But for my guy it is even more significant. It is 13 years longer than doctors told me he would live.
When I was about 3 weeks pregnant I went to the doctor to see if it was ok to travel internationally. He did a few tests to see how far along I was and to see if everything was developing normally. He told me this wasn’t a viable pregnancy. He repeated the tests a couple of times and each time reached the same conclusions.
Of course this is devastating news for anyone. But for me, I had wanted children for so long and after seven years of waiting had given birth to my first son. And then almost immediately found I was pregnant with my second child. It was too good to be true and now the doctor was telling me it was in fact too good to be true and wouldn’t last.
I had planned a beach trip over that Fourth of July weekend to relax with my best friend and her sister. I cancelled the trip, thinking that an impending miscarriage was better dealt with close to home.
But somewhere through that weekend, I decided that whatever the doctors and tests said, this was my baby for as long as I had it and that I would just love that baby as much as I could for as long as I could.
That baby defied the odds and became Thomas, my heartiest of kids who is freakishly strong and whose only real risk of survival comes from his crazy skateboarding and rock climbing adventures.
I like to tell him I just loved him into being.
But the real truth is that we just never know with kids. If you knew in advance all that could happen you might never embark on the journey. And for however much doctors know, and they do know a lot, they can never ever replace a mother’s instincts or love.
Hiring the personal organizer was a cry for help. I didn’t immediately see that. In fact, when I bid on four hours of her services at the kids’ school auction it seemed like a good way to get a prize that would add some value to our life (unlike the other ones that just seemed to fill us with wine and food).
She arrived at 9 am on a Saturday morning to assess the situation. Within the first five minutes she tackled the playroom, created an art station for the wayward crayons and pencils that littered the floor, recommended we buy a Lego table to facilitate the creation of the kids’ masterpieces, and then made an appointment to come back and take on the kitchen pantry.
I was in love.
The following week she arrived to organize the pantry. We had hosted a last minute dinner party the night before and so the kitchen counters were covered with wine bottles and dirty dishes. She cast a disapproving eye over the mess and moved on. She spent the next four hours creating alignment on the shelves, sorting snacks by category, re-arranging the dishes so you could actually find the party platter when you needed it, and rendering what had been a total clusterfuck into a Better Homes and Gardens photo feature. It was perfect.
Now I was addicted.
Before she walked out the door, I handed her a check with four figures to buy a full 24 hours of her time. Robin’s eyes were wide and his face a bit pale. We tend to discuss major purchases in advance, especially bat shit crazy ones, but I was off and running. I pretended not to notice, hugged her goodbye and counted the days until she came again.
In the time we have used so far, she has folded items in our linen closet with military precision, culled through the wardrobes of four boys and brought order to drawers and closets, purging bags of crap along the way. She tells me stories of how “the other houses” (i.e. the very rich who can afford her services) do things that fill me with wonder. Who hires a personal organizer to unpack the Peapod delivery? Do the very rich not know how to put away groceries? She does weekly orchid runs. Do the very rich not know about the Internet and online shopping?
These stories made me realize that no matter how much or how little money you have, we are all seeking to create order and control in our lives. If we weren’t why would Container Store be so successful?
It has made me realize too that no matter how many right angles you have in your closet or how many socks you own that have a mate, if you have kids you have chaos. And no amount of money is going to change that.