Pajama Night Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Pajama Night Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what.

This is a story about why I find myself in a bar most Tuesday evenings, often wearing penguin pajamas. (The penguins themselves are wearing scarves and pompom hats, very stylish.)  I was driven to this ritual the usual way: Chili glops on the kitchen counters.

*   *   *

Some years ago, I floated downstairs on a Saturday morning, heart swelling with a fantasy of breakfasty togetherness. The work week was behind me, and this morning I would orchestrate a cozy domestic tableau: a pajama-clad family smiling around homemade yumminess. Anthony, bless him, had cleaned the kitchen last night. I was about to mess it up again, in the name of Motherly Love.

My fantasy cracked when I walked into the kitchen and stuck to the floor. It shattered completely when I saw the counters, still sporting the crumbly, saucey reminders of last night’s chili and cornbread. DAMMIT.

To be fair, pots had been scrubbed and the trash taken out. But I was smacking right up against our most reliable drudgery trap: Anthony just doesn’t see some things. And I do.

You can’t make someone notice that which he does not notice. So as prime notice-er, I faced a familiar choice: I could gently point out the problem:  “THIS ISN’T WHAT IT MEANS TO CLEAN THE KITCHEN!”

Or I could finish the cleaning myself, doing last night’s work before whistling up a delectable breakfast.

I felt my golden-glow morning slip-sliding toward resentment. Those options suck.

Then . . . waitasec. What were the essential elements of my fantasy? Surely the parts about being cozy in our pj’s and enjoying each other mattered more than my star turn as Donna Reed. Could I salvage what mattered most, without needing to develop a Glop Strategy?

I threw on a sweatshirt and scrawled a note: “Gone to Fargonian. Saw no reason to get dressed. Come!”

Anti-drudge strategy #1: Flee the scene of the drudgery.

*   *   *

On that Saturday and for two years following, our family dribbled by ones and twos, as we woke up, into the tiny café just three blocks from our house. Each week, Heidi, the café’s owner, would ask “Strawberry crêpe?” and Youngest, whose pj’s still had feet, would answer “YES, PLEASE!”

Heidi gave extra whipped cream and never asked the kids to pay. She knew Anthony and I would be along eventually and our family would loll on her couch, licking our plates and reading old National Geographics.

That first morning had just been about ditching the nobody-wins options of the drudge dynamic. (And by the time we got home, all the juice was out of my frustration—I mentioned the chili-n-crumbs to Anthony, he cleaned it, and that was that.). But it turned out our new ritual had a whole ‘NOTHER drudgery antidote built inside it: other people. We’re not always our best selves around strangers (see: The Entire Internet), or even around the people we love best. But toss some nice neighbors into the mix?

Anti-drudge strategy #2:  Community.

Community isn’t just a small-town phenom—we live smack in the center of a metro area of three and a half million people. It’s whether you bother. Bother to go to the same little place every week, tell the person behind the counter your name and ask hers. It’s whether you talk to her a bit, ask how the morning is going, and how her son is liking Kindergarten. Friendships make the world merry. And good feelings quash the drudgey ones—that’s just scientific fact.

Yes, yes, community, nice. But where is the Tuesday-night drinking?

*   *   *

Our Saturday goodness came crashing down when Heidi closed her restaurant. (Turned out my panacea was her drudgery. Who’da thunk?) A bar—a BAR—moved into the space, and our cozy family refuge was replaced by hipsters and noise and all like that.

It’s possible I sulked for a few months.

“I’m not a bar person.”

But by now Eldest was babysitting age, and I was starting to learn about flexing a little.

Two years before, I’d given up my homecooked fantasy but kept its key components:

*   Dress for comfort, and

*   Together time.

We’d added, by happy accident,

*   Community.

Now, we’d transition from café to The Bottleneck. (The hipsters wouldn’t mind—didn’t their species maintain a staunchly pro-pajama stance?) Liquor laws meant we’d have to redefine together, but Anthony and I were due for some moments without the chilluns.

Anti-drudge strategy #3: be flexible.

We learned that the bartender’s name was Tyler.

We call it Pajama Night. In place of kidlets, we invite all the grownups we know. Friends within walking distance often come, but sometimes it’s just the two of us. Pajamas are optional, but the greeting is required:

“Happy Pajama Night!”

“Happy Pajama Night to you!”

We are cheery and making fun of ourselves and dead serious about this. The battle against drudgery that started as a way to keep my life in order without killing anyone has expanded, as all good philosophies must. It’s about finding territory where there’s no work for me to do (or to notice has not been done), and being with people we love. It’s about flexing my requirements, knowing that if I keep focus on what’s truly important, I can scoop up more joy—and leave disappointment behind.

Not everyone has a neighborhood café or a neighborhood bar (or pajamas.) These things are not the point. The point is: What is the essence of what I need, to love my life a little better? Does it have to be an exact thing, or is there a similar option that maybe is easier, and close at hand?

*   *   *

Anthony’s still in his clothes from work but I changed into hoodie + penguin bottoms shortly after dinner. Peter, our new bartender, calls “Happy Pajama Night!” as we open the door. My sister will show up soon, straight from class. Beth might be here later in her bathrobe and slippers, because Beth doesn’t do things by halves. We long for the reappearance of Bill’s robot pajamas, but wardrobe doesn’t matter. It matters that we’ve made it here, again, to enjoy the blessing that is friends.

Without my asking, Peter brings a Pajama Night drink invented just for me—the Pink Margot II. I am in a bar in my pajamas and many of the people know my name. I don’t have any idea what’s in this drink, but I know it is both bitter and sweet, which works.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.


Stealing Time For Fun: The Magic of the Homeschool Day

Stealing Time For Fun: The Magic of the Homeschool Day

It’s a little maudlin at my house these days. Through a combination of natural attrition and a distressingly adventurous Youngest, our nest is prematurely (if temporarily) empty. I’ve been wandering through bedrooms and sighing a lot, remembering the times I said “I AM SO TIRED OF THIS” instead of “Sweetie, come here. Tell me.” It’s going to be a long-ass haul to December.

In one room, left bittersweetly messy, I am dwelling on all the times I got it wrong when my eye falls on a coupon. It’s taped high on the wall, safe from the chaos below:

homeschooling coupon

One of the tragedies of working full time was that my evenings were all about tasks. Weekends, of course, were errands-and-sports. Eventually I realized that, to get several hours in a row that were PURE FUN, I was going to have to steal them.

Everyone knows that stolen time is sprinkled with pixie dust, all activities more magical when you’re supposed to be doing something else. Tom Sawyer had more fun playing hooky than he ever did on a Saturday afternoon.

But casting myself as both Tom and Aunt Sally would be tricky; it’s a far more gifted parent than I who can manage the message: “Cutting school with me is special fun, but try this with your little friends and INCUR MY WRATH. School matters!”

But I wanted to playyyyyyy.

And so homeschool day was born. Each kid got a single coupon a year.

I didn’t always know what precipitated the triumphant cashing in of a coupon – time for a break? a good weather forecast? – and I didn’t pry. I just took the coupon and started planning. And because our kids have been blessed with many of the best schoolteachers on the planet—thank you, thank you, thank you—we always had cheerful school-side partners in crime. (Ditching work was harder, but, you know, whatever.)

Now, if I were actually homeschooling, I’d have needed things like a long-term plan and possibly some training. But really, how much damage could I do? Tomorrow, my darling would be back safe with the professionals. (NB to actual homeschooling parents: Wow. Go you.) Having absolutely no responsibility to anything made my prep work giant fun.

I made Highly Official trappings. A printed schedule, with class periods and color coding. Very legit. Such hullaballoo is hardly necessary, but I found it upped the fun AND kept me feeling good about the messaging—this was different school, not skipping school.

And because I am hip to all the big-league educational trends, my homeschool always sported an INTEGRATED CURRICULUM. When Eldest, third grade, slapped down her coupon one dreary November evening, my subsequent lesson plan was as Thanksgiving as a smiling, bulletin-board turkey.

Four days later at 8:30 sharp, first period, we headed to the kitchen for Mathematics (she loved when I called it “Mathematics”). Our task was to quadruple all the recipes for Thanksgiving dinner BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY, LEFTOVERS ARE THE WHOLE POINT. We got out actual ingredients when necessary, and the lightbulb that went on when Eldest measured 3/4 cup butter four times—”Hey! That’s three cups!”—was barely dimmed by the surrounding white haze. (Flour is not the best choice for teaching fractions. Well, now I know.)

For Literature & History (double period, 1-2:40), I read aloud from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, because it is vaguely Pilgrim-y. Plus, it has that chapter where the Tory governor cancels Thanksgiving, even though long-suffering Mercy has already made the pies.

And so on.

In Homeschool Day, we found that sweet spot where what my child likes anyway (school in pajamas!) hit what I really wanted to share with them (books from my childhood!).

One year, we revolved Middlest’s day around his favorite part of regular school: P.E. We jogged a mile to our favorite park, then talked about why exercise makes us sweat. Flopped on the grass that was today our classroom, we read Jackie and Me, a fictionalized look at the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, and then we calculated batting averages.

The quasi-formality I drummed up each Homeschool Day resulted in a kind of role play, Student and Teacher. This broke some of the unpleasant habits we fell into as Parent/Offspring. I’m sorry to admit that I was reliably more patient as Math Teacher than when I was monitoring math homework.

The kids stepped up their game, too. When Mom chirps on a weekend morning, “Guys! Let’s go to the museum!” it’s just a groan. But when your homeschool schedule reads:

1 pm: Field trip, The Frye

Well, that’s a whole other thing.

And when we went to the Frye Art Museum (a free collection of manageable size, and close to home), I had Eldest pick her favorite picture (ART CLASS!), then create backstory for it in the form of a poem or a fairy tale (WRITING!). While she scribbled in her notebook beneath a painting twice her size, I wandered the museum and created a kind of scavenger hunt:

Identify art that. . .

…makes you feel scared

…makes you feel hopeful

…makes you feel sleepy

Afterward, we tried to pin down what the artist had done to elicit those feelings. Bonus: Her “scary” picture had a battle scene on it, so we went ahead and learned what the fighting had been about. (HISTORY!)

We got a lot of mileage out of the museum. Then we went to its café and ate a lot of cake. (LUNCH!)

My kids are too old to want homeschool days, now. (Not to mention NOT EVEN PRESENT. So unacceptable.) But a relic on the wall above a crash scene of rejected clothing brings back those stolen moments: in the museum, at the park, in a cloud of flour. I wasn’t only drudgey. There were times I got it right.

Dear Drudgery: Setting The Table For Thankfulness

Dear Drudgery: Setting The Table For Thankfulness

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun. Now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter!  It helped.

I’m not sure if there’s a right way to teach gratitude. (I do know that endlessly repeating “You should be grateful!” is not as effective as you might think.)

And kids aren’t the only ones with gratitude issues. When I’m feeling drudgey, counting my blessings is just one more damn thing I’m not getting done. My crabbiness about preparing another dinner obscures my great good fortune that I have something to prepare.

But I’m convinced gratitude is a muscle—you work it, it gets strong, and suddenly you’re flexing all over the place.

My husband, without even trying (OH HOW TYPICAL) hit on a way to get us to work that muscle hard. In the beginning, neither of us had any idea he was striking a blow against drudgery and for blessing-counting.

Anthony’s announcement appeared on a Friday—a single sheet of printer paper taped to the inside of our front door, where none of us could miss it as we stumbled downstairs toward consciousness. He’d used clipart of the Extra, Extra guy—you know, the one brandishing a newspaper, from the Chance cards in Monopoly.

Coming soon! he was shouting. Hot Breakfast Wednesday!


Neither the Extra, Extra guy nor Anthony was providing further detail, so for five long days we waited. Anthony had never announced a Big Thing before. To be honest, Things were kind of my thing.

On the Wednesday in question, I stayed home to witness. (Our both-parents-work rhythm typically involved me heading to the office very early while Anthony did mornings. I got home in time to produce something edible for dinner.) And OH MY! The fully set table held waffles and fruit and warm syrup in pitchers. Sausages! It was like Christmas morning but WAY BETTER, because I hadn’t been up until 2 a.m. wrapping things.

Every Wednesday, Anthony told us, he would make a legit breakfast before school.

Hot Breakfast Wednesday became instant legend. And, like anything awesome, its name was soon nicked—even the acronym HBW wasn’t short enough. “Woo hoo!” hollered Middlest the following week, banging down the stairs at 6:55 while groping his way into a t-shirt “It’s time for HBDubs!”

You’d think I’d be thrilled, too, right? Super grateful? There was my husband, being all awesome! Taking his own steps to undrudge-ify our lives, not looking to me to do it!

I was, mostly. But this one little corner of me was kind of a dick. It couldn’t help but notice that I produced dinner regularly, with no formal announcement.

“And dinners are way harder!” that bit of me whined.

The kids gushed about HBW to their friends. I tried to imagine anyone saying, “Guys! My mom does the coolest thing. Almost every night when I come home, there’s dinner! No joke—hot dinners, like constantly!”

But Anthony figures out the waffle iron, and suddenly he’s this big hero?

I hate when I get resentful and pissy. I do it anyway.

*   *   *

 What’s for breakfast? Anything, everything. Pancakes, of course. Eggs all ways. Beans and rice. Hash browns—from potatoes we grew in the garden or a bag we grabbed in the freezer section. Scones. BACON. No vegetable? No worries! Breakfast is a very forgiving meal.

Like any cultural icon, HBW was soon rich with ritual and unwritten rules:

1. The table is set. Whoever’s home sits down. We talk to each other.

2. Except for clearing their dishes, kids aren’t asked to help.

3. HBW goes on hiatus whenever school does.

But the most interesting convention of HBW was so subtle that I didn’t know it existed until a not-us person broke it. One Tuesday evening, a friend of Middlest asked what must have seemed like a reasonable question:

“Hey, what’s for HBDubs tomorrow? Ask your Dad if you can have. . .”

Anthony and I, overhearing, gasped and looked at each other. Who was this punk?

“Dude,” said Middlest, “We don’t ask.”

The unspoken (till now I guess) principle of HBW is that it is the product of divine intervention. Like snow days, manna from heaven, a letter from Hogwarts—HBW happens to you; your only job is to receive it with thanks. Anthony must have instilled this somehow. Wordlessly, which is his way.

We mixed up the rhythm and I got a stint as HBW master. One week I apologized for a particularly lame offering: “Sorry, guys. I didn’t get to the store so it’s just oatmeal today. I toasted some almonds, though.”

And Youngest replied “Mama, it’s hot breakfast! This is awesome! Thanks for making it for us!”

*   *   *

HBW was so over-the-top wonderful that our kids couldn’t help but express their gratitude—flex, flex, flex. I’m glad they were older (Youngest was in sixth grade) when Anthony started it. It wouldn’t have been a miracle in Kindergarten, but when you’ve been getting your ownself out the door for years—and then, suddenly, a weekly feast appears?

Middlest took a gap year. When he returned from his travels to live and work at home, the job he finally found kept him working past midnight. But there he was each Wednesday morning, chatting delightfully, saying THANKS THAT WAS SO DELICIOUS! (and then, usually, going back to bed.) When asked why he set an alarm, he said:

“I just figure. . .Hot Breakfast Wednesday is a two-way street.”

And so Anthony’s brainchild became a canvas on which what’s best about our family got writ. A midweek moment where we show up and no one bickers and we are our best selves.

But what about my own petty resentment, that little, drudgey place in me that had been crabby about. . . uneven thanking?

I got over it. I’m an all-in HBDubs fangirl.

*   *   *

Gap year is over, and Anthony just dropped Middlest off at college on the other side of the country. He emailed me:

“We picked up the boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond. As the clerk rang us up, [Middlest] looked at me and said, ‘Thanks, Dad. Thanks so much to you and mom for buying me all this stuff.’ The clerk nearly wet herself. She said, ‘Now, that’s what I’m talking about. He’s the first kid I’ve heard this week thanking his parents.'”

And then that nice clerk threw a 20% discount onto the entire order.

HBDubs doesn’t get all the credit, but I know it helped get our gratitude muscles in shape. So, Hot Breakfast Wednesday? Thank you.


Illustration by Christine Juneau

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

The Drudgey And The Profane

The Drudgey And The Profane


0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun. Now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter!  It helped.

I don’t know that I’m a good person (seems unlikely), but I do do a lot of good-person things. I offer old people my seat on the bus and give money to people who need it. I’m polite to strangers, even though many of them bug the shit out of me. I call my parents. I try to do what’s best for the children.

And I swear like a motherfucking sailor.

I was raised better. I grew up in gentle gardens of dangits and shoots and, when the crud really hit the fan, my mom might let fly an effing or two. But while most of my peers likewise cleaned up their acts when parenthood hit, I’ve held my profanity close.

This isn’t, for one minute, because I think words don’t matter. Of course words matter. Their mattering is exactly why I can use them, in my ongoing campaign against drudgery.

See, the Drudge in me waxes and wanes, and I’m at my grumpy drudgiest when I’m feeling trapped in the Mom-role. (It’s the role I love most, but it can get kinda trappy in there, amirite? What with all the clutter and the exhaustion and all.) And just about everything I do—my sleep, my finances, where I live, how I spend my time—is determined, quite rightly, by that role.

But the way I talk—I can make that role-agnostic. Words are something I can choose exactly the way the non-parent me would choose them. When I stub my toe and say an honest Shit!—that’s the me of me speaking. (Sometimes I wonder wistfully what it would be like to have been born with a gentle temperament, the kind where daily annoyances don’t make you want to swear, or throw dishes.)

As I was evolving my Philosophy of Profanity, I noted that letting-me-be-me might be nice conceptually, but there really are good reasons not to swear in front of the children. For example, no one wants to hear kids swearing. And also, profanity offends people (who might then get judgey about my parenting).

Totally legit reasons! Oh my goodness, I should never swear in front of the kids! But when I looked a little closer. . .

1.     We shouldn’t swear because we don’t want our kids to swear.

Um, hypocrisy much?

Most of us don’t want our toddlers knocking back martinis, yet we drink in front of the kids. We tell our children not to hit—then we turn on the football game. And violent rampages by evil geniuses are obviously verboten, but fuck me if every film in the entire James Bond canon isn’t some kind of PG.

Pick your poison. All of us have behaviors we don’t want our children to mimic, but we expose them anyway. (You don’t? Ever? Yay, you! Now, please never come to my house. I love my children very much and I fear that you will earnest them to death.)

2.     Profanity is upsetting to others.

In all things, I figure, be kind. Swearing near children is going to bug some people. In those cases, minding my tongue isn’t not being myself. It’s simply being the self to whom my mama taught manners.

At our house, Youngest hates it when I swear. (She’s pretty status conscious; I think she doesn’t want me to sound common.) So I try to keep it clean when she’s around. As a parent, I prize caring for each other over any vocabulary option.

Along these lines, the one curse I stay away from is the one just about everyone else uses freely. How in the world did “Oh my God” (or G-d, for my friends in the Tribe) become the least sweary of all the swears? Of the myriad curse words available, that one is actually supposed to be sacred. It’s vested with emotion and meaning that people hold dear. (Okay, perhaps some people feel that way about the world asshole, but I’m going to posit that they’re an edge case, and not mine to worry about.)

I use a lot of words in vain, but not God. I ask my kids to refrain, too. Because words matter, I tell them.

*   *   *

Since I chose to employ profanity as a means of staying More Me, Less Drudge, I had to come up with some ground rules.

Swearing, I tell the adorables when they’re little, is a grown-up thing.

Later, I work to combat the notion that kids swearing is cool: You know that kid who always tries to act older than he is? Yeah, he looks ridiculous. Don’t be that guy. Leave the swearing to the professionals until you get your learner’s permit.

(Obviously, you have to be able to swear once you can drive.)

When to swear, and around whom, is nuanced. I figure (not rationalizing at all) that my profane ways provide a decent object lesson in situational ethics: I may swear around you but you may not swear around me; neither of us curses around grandma; how you talk with your friends is up to you. . . .

*   *   *

The jury’s still out on the good-person thing, but I’m pretty sure that my occasional “Fuck it!” is infinitely better than me lobbing the salad plates. And when Youngest hears me bite it back at “F…,” she knows I’m doing it for her.

What’s best for the children? A mama who feels like she’s many, many things—including a mother. A mama who recognizes that caring is reflected by more than whether our sentences would get past the FCC. In my case, that means being a mama who swears.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.


Dear Drudgery Series

DD page

Dear Drudgery:  A Margot Page for Brain, Mother series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what

1.  I Am Totally Breaking Up With You

2.  Clean This! (In Which I Trick Chores Into Being Fun)

3.  Resumé Of An Anti-Drudge Zealot

4.  Carpe Diem Edition: Seize The Fun

5.  You’ve Been Outsourced

6.  Xtreme Driving Edition

7.  The Drudgey And The Profane

8.  Setting the Table For Thankfulness

9.  Stealing Time For Fun: The Magic of the Homeschool Day

10. Pajama Night Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means



 Illustration by Christine Juneau


Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun. Now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter!  It helped.

My idea made perfect sense to me; I don’t know why everyone acted like I’d lost my mind.

“Sight unseen? On eBay?! In PASADENA? How do you know this car will even drive?”

Well, sometimes you don’t get to know.

My fun program had been baby steps so far, but this was going to be high drama. It had to be, to counter all the emotional unspooling.

You hear sometimes of the breakdown that can happen in a marriage, right around the decade mark. Some marriages survive it, some don’t. But regardless of outcome, an awful lot of marriages tank for a while. Anthony and I proved to be super awesome at the tanking.

That spring was the Spring I Cried. In the kitchen, in the car, in the office. Would I ever not be tired? Did I love Anthony, really, the way you’re supposed to love your partner? Had he ever loved me? Wasn’t marriage supposed to have more movie-montage elation, fewer protracted silences? While Anthony and I were disintegrating, our poor children were busy being ten, seven, and almost three.

I was a wreck, but it wasn’t a job for antidepressants. I wasn’t inexplicably blue; I was blue-with-explication: I was in a marriage, but it felt like it was just me in there. The man brushing his teeth beside me was kind and good, but utterly silent. Well, not utterly.

“Good morning.”


“Can you drive to soccer?”

“Um…sure. Yeah, that works. You can get to daycare?”

“Yep. Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

I loved my children more than breathing, but most mornings I woke up barely able to breathe myself. Evenings, Anthony and I sat on the couch after the kids went to bed, completely spent, not remembering what it was like to have things to say.

Darkened rooms are for amateurs. I demonstrated my ability to fall apart in the chipperest of settings one sparkling May evening. We’d all gone for burgers, then to the playground. Eldest dangled on the swing with her book and Middlest spouted baseball stats and chewed with his mouth open, but Youngest still loved the slide. I put her at the top and launched her with a gentle push – wooosh.

The tears came silently, and without warning or reason. I tried to blink them back; too late. They, too, launched.


And then more. Eldest sidled over and slid her hand into mine.

Over and over. Youngest slid. I cried. Eldest held on. Anthony and Middlest, unaware, talked infield fly rule.

Well. This wasn’t sustainable.

What do you do when you feel the very core of your life isn’t working? You carefully, thoughtfully, examine that core and make changes, right?

That’s a big process. In the short run, could I maybe just keep from losing my shit on the playground?

More everyday joys to get us through, I thought. Big ones, while I figure out what to do with my head and my heart.

I thought about driving, its slogging constancy. Work, practices, orthodontists, school—I covered an endless loop in our ratty used cars, Corolla and minivan, both older than my marriage and about as tired.

I’d never been a material girl, but I suddenly flashed on a way to transform those hours and hours of drive time. It was so out-of-character I knew it must be right. That night, I looked up the bluebook value of the Corolla—$5,000; I could work with that—then drew a circle with a thousand-mile radius, our house dead center… Any location outside the circle was fair game. My driving renaissance would start with a road trip.

I approached Anthony with my plan, explained how it didn’t have to be expensive.

“I think you should go for it,” he said.

(Eventually, I would notice that the quiet I was raging against was simply the frustrating alter ego of this sterling quality: Anthony doesn’t sweat things. Two sides, same coin.)

I opened an eBay account. I practiced entering ridiculously low bids, to get the feel of things. Four days later, when BMWDude456 was auctioning off his – my – convertible, I knew to wait until the final moment.

At 11:29:30 PDT on a Wednesday, I sat in my office with a conference call on mute—just for a minute; it’s not my fault my car was being auctioned during weekly status—and eBay on my screen. I had already typed in my maximum bid of $5,800 and positioned my cursor square on the Bid Now button.

I kept my hand above the mouse, not touching lest I bid too early or start a nuclear war. I held position until 11:29:52, and then I clicked.

Eight seconds later, I was the gasping owner of a 325i. Fifteen years old, condition: “Excellent.” (Cherry red, but fuck the jokes about midlife crisis. I wanted the car much more than I resented the cliché. Anyway, I was only thirty-four. HOLY MOLY! I WAS A MIDLIFE-CRISIS PRODIGY!) I finished my meeting.

When they heard, my friends and coworkers had a collective cow:

“You bought a CAR on eBay?! How do you know it can even make it home? That the guy isn’t a total crook?”

Excellent questions, one and all, I acknowledged, and made a plan to pick up my car.

*   *   *

I’m pretty sure I met BMWDude456 at a Pasadena strip mall, but I don’t really remember him. My car was so red, so cheerful. It even had those wheels with the super shiny spokes. Twenty minutes later, I waved goodbye to Dude—I think—and headed up the California coast. I’d gone to Pasadena by myself, to be alone for the first time in ten years, to fall to pieces in peace. But as my red car and I tootled up 101, I didn’t feel much like falling to pieces at all.

*   *   *

Back home, two weeks after my historic mouse-click, I witnessed a kind of magic: The circuit was still there and still endless, but carpool-mom drudgery was replaced by unalloyed glee. Someone always begged to join me, on errands I no longer dreaded. The sun shone down on our upturned faces as we sang along with The Magnetic Fields, shouting our delight into the blue, blue sky. Just going to the dentist became sun on the water, wind in the hair.

When Anthony and I were in the car together, I felt the wind whipping away the miasma that had formed between us. Yes, we still had work to do. But the space between the bucket seats was easier to penetrate than the exact same distance, sitting on the couch.

The red-car atmosphere was pure and fresh, easy to move through. In it, I realized that the laughing, the fun, the lightness—they’d been available all along, just as true and as real as the confusion and the lonesome. I’d been missing the great while I focused on the hard. The hard was still there too, of course, but this car—a car, how ridiculous—drove me right up to all the good stuff, made me stop and look.

The mood of the red car persisted even when we weren’t in it, and I knew:  People who say you can’t get joy from material objects have never met the right material object. We zipped around our lives, creating montage after montage.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Dear Drudgery: You’ve Been Outsourced!

Dear Drudgery: You’ve Been Outsourced!


0-1Ah, lecturing. The joy of knowing things that the children do not, and telling them all about it. How lucky you are that I understand so much, is the subtext of every parental lecture. And that I am willing to share my wisdom with you.

We have talked some in this series about nagging, but lecturing is nagging all growed up. Nagging lives for the moment: Clear your dish. Get your backpack off the couch. Lecturing takes the long view. It’s not just this dish, this minute. Lecturing understands that the left-behind dinner dish is merely a fleeting symptom of a deep character flaw—our children’s selfishness, thoughtlessness, and senses of entitlement are problematic, and so we must lecture them out.

“Pick up your backpack,” is a nag; the lecture is more like: “The world is not just about you, sweet cheeks. It’s time you realize what it means to be part of a family.”

Because we’re not just creating a tidy living room; we’re creating people. In procreating, we have taken it upon ourselves to send children out into the world, and I don’t want mine to get out there and be assholes. This is a reasonable fear! Perfectly adorable children grow up to monopolize conversations, be sarcastic to the elderly, and talk loudly on their cell phones on public transportation. And so I lecture, for a better world.

My parental lecture series has many installments. Your Life is Cake and You Should Appreciate It, is a biggie, as is It’s Actually Pretty Easy To Be Helpful, So Why Not? My most artful lecture, Why You Should Share, is one I stole from a friend several years ago. This beauty is pithy, concise, and in just a few short sentences manages to turn standard childhood pettiness into a life-threatening character flaw:

“Sweetie, I can see you don’t feel like sharing the toy with your sister. And I understand—it’s yours! But remember this: That girl is the closest genetic match you have on this planet and one day, you might need a kidney. When that day comes, your sister might not feel like sharing.”

By definition, my lecture topics are rarely pleasant. This makes lecturing a prime candidate for funnification.

I share this truth with you now:

The very most absolute fun thing you can do with lectures is to outsource them. 

Here’s how it works.

You take a standard lecture, and you give it a name. And then you open it up.

At our house, the This is Dinner speech as delivered by me went roughly like this:

“Guys, this is dinner, and I’m just making the one. If you don’t like this dinner, that’s fine, but I don’t need to hear about that – you’re welcome to cheerfully make yourself something else. If you don’t finish your dinner? Also okay. But when you come back hungry in a couple of hours, don’t expect snacks until you’ve eaten some growing food.”

One night when Eldest was frowning at her asparagus and gearing up for god-knows-what, I turned to Middlest. “Think you could give the This is Dinner speech tonight?”

COULD HE EVER. Standing up, Middlest made his eight-year-old windpipe go very deep. “This” he intoned, “is Dinner.” He embellished. He listed myriad alternative dinner options available in the kitchen. He made sure we took this very, very seriously.

And we were off. From that moment, I could always say “What lecture do you think I’m about to give right now? Think you could do it?”

“Oh! Oh! I want to! Let me!”

When we lived in Costa Rica, the biggest linguistic milestone of the year came the evening that Youngest gave the This is Dinner speech in Spanish:

“Esta es la cena. . .” she began in her five-year-old lisp, standing on her chair to get everyone’s attention. “Mama he hacerlo. . .”

Do the kids think it’s kinda dumb? Of course. Do they do it anyway, and is it better than having to do it myself? OH YOU BET. And here is a point, a very important one so probably I will harp on it for a while because, you know, it’s what I do: Standing up against drudgery is not actually about whether the kids are having fun. Here in the 21st-century U.S. of A., parenting is already hyperskewed toward ensuring these children are living marvelous, fun, enriched lives every minute of every day. My anti-Drudge campaign? That’s about ME having a good time.

Bottom line? Each of my kids still has to share/pick up their stuff/not be bratty about having to share a bedroom—whether I’ve written a limerick about it, made them pick a task out of a jug, or just become slightly unhinged. It’s the journey, darlings, I say to them. And I want to enjoy it, even the tedious parts. Do I want the kids to enjoy the journey, too? Oh, so much. But believe me: When I’m having more fun, all of us are.

All three of my kids babysit, now. Not long ago, Eldest came home, tired but glowing, from a long summer day with the three adorable girls she takes care of. “I taught them a speech,” she told me. “We called it ‘This is snack.'”

Illustration by Christine Juneau

On Drudgery: Resumé Of An Anti-Drudge Zealot

On Drudgery: Resumé Of An Anti-Drudge Zealot

0-1This is third installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parent-related tedium what’s what. Previous posts include such easy-to-implement practices as Hassle Poetry and the Jug of Endurable Tasks.

This post is less practical. Consider it optional background reading.

If someone came ambling down the Internet presuming to tell me how to be more fun, I’d want to kick her in the face. (Hey! That is not a very fun thing to do!) So. If I’m going to commit this act of breathtaking hypocrisy—and it appears that I am—it feels appropriate to provide my qualifications.

But, um, oops. I’ve performed no analyses, measured no heart rates. I’m no funner than you are, most likely. BUT I OBVIOUSLY HAVE SOMETHING GOING FOR ME, BECAUSE I JUST USED THE WORD “FUNNER” AND NOBODY DIED. So, you know. Respect.

What I have is a story.

Once I had a really shitty year. So, so shitty. I had three small kids in a messy yellow house, a gaggle of ambitious colleagues, and a very kind, but very silent, husband.

At home, life was a jumble of clutter and carpools and diapers and homework. Every single day, there was more to do than I could ever get done. (No matter how many times we made dinner, the children needed to eat again, the very next day! They really had no shame about it.) And while Husband’s silence wasn’t malicious—I’m married to one of the most amiable humans ever spawned—it simply didn’t occur to him to speak to me. Our extended non-conversation made me lonely, and not always cheerful.

During this period, way too many of my sentences started “Oh for god’s sake. . .” and ended with exclamation points. (Not the fun kind).

That was home. At the office, I built software alongside energetic, wanna-be-millionaire dudes. (In certain pockets of high tech, and I was in one of them, it was pretty much always dudes back then. It’s evened out.) While I was scurrying to produce quality work and get the hell out before daycare closed (I had no millionaire aspirations, which turned out to be SO LUCKY), the guys never seemed to be in a hurry—they took lots of breaks, then worked late. It was no secret how they pulled this off: To a dude, they were either completely unencumbered, or they had wives at home to wipe the snot and manage the details.

One rock-bottom day, as a band of merry teammates held their daily frat party foosball game down the hall, I closed my office door and let the tears leak out. Sure you can play games all afternoon, I seethed, phlegmily. You have all that fucking wind beneath your wings.

(In full-on self-pity mode, I can turn the sweetest of sentiments into an exercise in profanity. I am the master.)

Husband didn’t get it, which was of course part of the problem, and the kids were too little to understand. Plus, it’s not the children’s job to understand their mama’s shitty year. It’s their job to keep growing. It takes a lot of focus to learn to use your words, especially when biting makes a much more honest statement. Keeping it together is the parent’s job.

So at work I was leaking and seething; at home, there was yelling and guilt-tripping. Keeping-it-togetherwise, I was not—to steal vocabulary from my day job—meeting expectations.

The day I overreacted to foosball, I knew for sure: This woman, scrambling through life trying not to slap anyone, is not me. I can flee, or I can find a way to inject more fun and lightness into this whole enterprise. But if I keep feeling like this, I will lose myself completely and I will surely die.

Fleeing would be embarrassing, and dying seemed likely to scar the children. So I went with funnification; it was the only option left.

(Note: I’m not saying one has to end up that close to the edge in order to un-drudge. In fact, I recommend strongly against it. And of course, true, clinical depression can’t be decided away. But I was not clinically depressed; I was what your mental-health professionals refer to as “kinda bitchy, really.”)

I had a friend in a similar place. We whined at each other regularly, “But I used to be so fun. What happened?” One day we decided: We would no longer let the tasks of survival be the whole story. We would Commit to Fun.

We wanted to stop acting like life was such a freaking chore all the time. To very consciously create little zones of joy and air and light amid all the daily tasks, pockets in which tiny green shoots of fun and freedom could survive. The next day I set out to find or make a million sunlit spaces, where before I’d thought there was only room for Getting Things Done.

I began to feel like myself again, and life was vastly better inside the yellow house.

And that is the creation story of my assault on drudgery and my commitment to fun. It comprises the entirety of my qualifications to speak on the subject:

1.     Once I lost myself in drudgedom, and I didn’t like it.

2.     I found simple gimmicks to make our days more fun, and

3.     Life was more joyful, then.

Of course, every so often I still get lost, and have to remember to drag myself back. You have to keep working the program. Truth be told, we have the makin’s, again, for another no-good era at my house. But I’m older and a little wiser, and I’ve gotten out of this hole before.

Not this time, Drudgery, I shake my finger at it, because I am so bossy. I win, again.

Enough with the navel gaze. Next time, back to the gimmicks—we’ll pick up with Backpacks of Possibility.

(P.S. I keep my face in Seattle, in case you would like to try to kick it.)


Illustration by Christine Juneau


Dear Drudgery: Clean This! (In Which I Trick Chores Into Being Fun)

Dear Drudgery: Clean This! (In Which I Trick Chores Into Being Fun)

0-1I was waging a straight-up assault on the relentless non-funnitude of my life’s necessary tasks, and I named the next institution Ten Minutes of Cleaning.

Cleaning is yuck, sure, but drudgery is not just a matter of the work itself. Drudgery is time-worn ruts and the same damn thing over and over. Drudgery is waking up knowing that today’s dishes will get just as dirty as yesterday’s, and that tomorrow they’ll need washing yet again, world without end.

Although it wouldn’t affect the dirtiness of the dishes, Ten Minutes would lower my drudge factor, I figured, because it would at least be a togetherness thing. Beyond that, I thought no conscious think about magic, education, or the power of the unexpected. But that’s just because I’m shortsighted.

In its most basic form, Ten Minutes of Cleaning looked like this:

1. Shortly after dinner, each of us drew a slip of paper from the Jug of Endurable Tasks (which I had populated easily on a quick, note-jotting wander through the house).

2. After the drawing, if necessary, we held a brief training period (Eldest: “What’s a baseboard?”)

3. We set the timer. For a focused ten minutes, we worked the tasks we had pulled.

4. The timer made its timer sound. Cleaning halted.

I figured we’d give it a try. Then, a few nights in, it was clear to me that Ten Minutes of Cleaning wasn’t just working. It was working like a freaking charm.


I have thoughts.

First, cleaning a house that teems with children and life is a never-ending task, and Ten Minutes rendered that infinite finite. “Done” had no relationship to whether the house was clean (it wasn’t). By definition, cleaning was done when the timer went off. If you’d fished out an easy task—Windex the handprints on the banister*—well, score! But even if the Jug had handed you a monster—Clean the fridge—no one was expecting you to finish. Just make that little dent. Zip! Ten Minutes left no time for paralysis, for dread.

That timer also ushered in my favorite part of the whole operation:

Me: Time’s up! Stop cleaning!

Child: I only need another minute! Please!

Me: Rules are rules. Stop cleaning I say! Stop it at once!

Ten Minutes also taught us that, for such an itty-bitty snatch of time, ANYTHING is actually endurable.

That cooler we picked cherries into last July, then abandoned on the back porch? And now we’re so afraid of what’s going on in there that we pretend the cooler does not exist, even though we keep tripping over it? Yes, that. Chop chop. It’s just ten minutes.

Our new practice let me introduce a world of housekeeping skills, bit by tiny bit. The constant struggle just to keep their beds findable meant my kids were rarely exposed to weird, occasional tasks, like discarding the decade-old cleansers and shriveled sponges that bred beneath the bathroom sink. Now, the tasks I used to tackle late at night (or on a rare, empty-house Saturday, or not at all) were open season for anyone: That thing under the stove burner, catching all the drips? It comes out. Let me show you how we clean it. . .

Is it imperfect? Yes. Jobs get done incompletely and not to my occasionally pathological standards. But I’m okay with it because ten minutes after we start, my house is still about fifty minutes (ten minutes times five people) cleaner than when we began. Yes, sometimes the living room remains piled in toys and backpacks while its baseboards and furnace vents are deeply clean; I do not recognize this as problematic.

And let’s talk about fairness. Yes, Middlest, you’ll get more done than your little sister does even though she makes more messes, but it’s just ten minutes. In fact, today, how about if you don’t choose anything from the Jug? Just help Youngest with whatever she picks. That way, she’ll get better.

I had an inkling of the Fun possibility inherent in Ten Minutes when I first created the jug. (Full disclosure: We actually started with a saucepan. It worked okay.) Still, I didn’t tell anyone I was adding a few non-cleaning tasks, because I didn’t know yet if it would be brilliant.

But hopes were exceeded the moment Eldest arched a skeptical brow, shoved her hand into the ceramic pitcher, and pulled out a task I had included just for her:

“Wait,” a sunrise was happening all over her face. “This says ten minutes of READING! Are you SERIOUS?!” She fled for her book, hooting.

Expecting, at best, a Windexing task, Eldest had instead pulled out a gift. Unearned and unasked for, and ten minutes long.

From then on, whenever we reached for the Jug, there could be magic. And there could be magic is the mortal enemy of drudgery.  Once we adopt the possibility of unexpected gifts as a world view, life is never so drudgey, ever again.

The year I Committed to Fun, I wanted us to live into the truth that sure, there’s a whole lot of stuff we have to do to keep our lives running … but inside it, something excellent could happen. Maybe you have to make it happen, but the magic is out there. The dishes will still get dirty, so: Let’s not let the dishes be the whole story.


* Hint: All children love tasks where there’s spraying.

Illustration by Christine Juneau




Dear Drudgery: I Am Totally Breaking Up With You

Dear Drudgery: I Am Totally Breaking Up With You

0-1“Jeez, Mom! You don’t have to yell!”

“Really? ‘Cause it seems like I do. Just once, I’d like to see you people hang up your backpacks without me having to THROW A TEMPER TANTRUM!”

Sometimes, I come a tiny bit unraveled.

Sometimes, the responsibilities that come with the charming children and the stressy job and just existing on the planet, really, become too much. The drudgey form my life has taken sends me into something of a spin.

A few years ago was my nadir. I scarcely recognized the pinched, exhausted woman staring hollowly back at me above the bathroom sink.

I moved through each day beseeching everyone I encountered to understand that I was not, actually, the careworn hag before them:  I am so damn fun on the inside, I mentally assured coworkers, PTA parents, the checkout guy at Safeway. You people have no idea.

When you find yourself explaining, even internally, that the person you’re being is not the person you are, it’s possible that something is amiss.

As I hit drudge bottom, I knew I wanted to be more fun, to have more fun. But the thought of adding fun activities to my schedule got me exhausted all over again. I needed more outward manifestations of my inner fun person, but where would I find the time?

I stewed for a while.

At last, I announced my solution in the minivan. “I have critical information for you people,” I said, as we headed out for a Saturday of epic birthday-shopping, practice-attending, errand-running proportion. “I’ve made a commitment, and I want to say it out loud so that you can hold me to it.”

My pause here was perhaps overly dramatic. “I am committed to fun.”

While Eldest and Youngest processed this information, Middlest piped up from the way back. “So, like, you’re only going to do fun stuff?” He pitched another M&M in the air and tried to catch it in his mouth. For Middlest, manifesting his inner fun person had never been much of an issue.  “What about going to work, and driving us places?”

“Exactly,” I said. “I can’t drop the things I do already, so this won’t be easy. That’s why I have to be committed.”

My family seemed game. Also, a little disbelieving and not so interested. No matter. The drudgery was my problem. I’d take it from here.

Eleanor Roosevelt, righteous badass and mother of six, was being her supergenius self when she said “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” And you know what? Ditto drudge. I’d let myself get all drudgey, and I could revoke my pass. I was committed to finding fun all over the place. Given my dearth of disposable time, the first step would be to fun-ify necessary tasks.

I like a challenge, so for my starter funification I took on the piece of my world that made me the craziest: nagging. I knew I couldn’t eliminate it; our whole house would implode. But could nagging be hauled out of the drudge zone?  Could I make nagging … fun?

I poked around in my brain, and realized that I had let a lot of things that brought me joy fall to the wayside. That way lies drudgehood, I was convinced. So: What used to please me that I’d let slip away?

Travel, poetry, loud music in a car with no roof. Flowers everywhere, staying out late. Hmm.

When I began composing in the genre we would christen Hassle Poetry, my primary medium was haiku. I found it freeing that my commitment was to fun, not literary excellence.

I taped my first effort to our twelve-year-old’s bedroom door:

My darling daughter,

Teeth cannot straighten themselves.

Call Doc Shapiro.

Sometimes I would add a little vocab lesson, just because I could:

Bifurcation means

Something one, now split in two

Where’s the other sock?

(Lovelies, please: Put all your laundry in the hamper)

I taped my poems to math books and wrote them in toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. They were certainly no less effective than standard nagging, sometimes more so, and the whole operation made me grin.

Kids come into our lives and move into the center, which is exactly where I wanted mine. But there’s lots of room in there. I’d just forgotten is all. Hassle poetry was my first foray into joyfully, goofily, tucking other things I love back in the center of my mothering. As time went on, my offerings would get bigger.


Illustration by Christine Juneau