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Video: Slacker moms vs. alpha moms

updated 6/22/2007 8:04:13 AM ET 2007-06-22T12:04:13

Constantly beating yourself up about your mothering skills? Feel like you're never doing as good a job as the next mom? Well, here's help. In a new book titled, "Good Enough Mother," journalist and TV personality, René Syler, takes a humorous look at modern-day momhood and offers empathy and advice to help all moms get a little relief. Here's an excerpt:

All Roads Lead to Math

THE THIRD GRADE ALMOST KILLED ME.

Not my third grade experience, mind you, but my kids’. Once I saw their homework — the work sheets covered in figures and fractions — my heart started to thump and my head began to swim. I felt as if I were being haunted by the Ghost of Homework Past.

Since I’m a professional journalist, it may not come as a surprise that I was (and still am) a voracious reader, of anything from the classics to my beloved collection of Nancy Drew books, and I was a more-than-passable English student in school. My friends thought I was nuts, because I liked to write  book reports and keep up with summer reading lists.

But don’t get me started on math.

I hated math.

If you don’t believe me, ask Mr. McCullough, my much-maligned high school math teacher, because I wore out my britches and three desks in his class, one for each year I was there, endlessly failing to understand just what the heck algebra was and why on earth I was plagued enough to have to think about it. Never did the poor guy see any improvement in my algebra skills or in my disposition in (not) dealing with them.

By the time Casey started school, I had had many long years of freedom from figures. Long, lovely years devoid of the need to count anything more taxing than calories.

Which is why I broke into a cold sweat when Casey came home from third grade one fine day and, good girl that she is, sat down with an apple and a cookie and a glass of milk, spread out her homework, and then dropped the bomb.

She needed help with fractions.

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Fractions? FRACTIONS! Lord have mercy, there were twenty years of cobwebs filling the minuscule area of gray matter that ever dealt with fractions. Any ability to understand fractions hadn’t been replaced by just cobwebs, but by partying, glasses of wine, childbirth, early morning wake-up calls, and trying to keep Cole from destroying the house. My fraction- capable brain cells — all three and three quarters of them — had long been lost in the Bermuda Triangle of life’s priorities.

Of course I couldn’t tell any of this to Casey, lest she think her mother a completely incompetent booby. But seriously, how on earth do you explain math to an impressionable child when you don’t get it yourself? Or how do you explain that the mere thought of adding anything with a number higher than the ten fingers on my hands triggers the kind of anxiety that cannot be assuaged with my usual “I Don’t Care” mantra?

See, a good-enough mother knows she’s not perfect, that she’s a normal bundle of anxieties and inadequacies and that she has some really finely honed skills and some boneheaded tendencies that usually result in belly flops or fallen soufflés. In other words: She’s human.

But I don’t want my children to think that I can’t succeed at something if I really put my mind to it. Not that I’d expect to come out a gold-medal winner, but I’d expect to do the best I could and that that would be good enough. Just as crucial: They need to know that they’ll succeed as well, if they put their minds to it. It’s also crucial for them to learn that if they don’t succeed, they need to try another tactic to get the goal accomplished.

Teaching these things to children is very hard to do when you’re convinced you’re going to fail. I feel as dizzy when confronted with math homework now as I did whenever Mr. McCullough breezily informed the class that he was springing a pop quiz on us. I knew I would fail then—and I did. Now

whenever I see the figures swimming on the sheet of math homework, I fear I will fail again, even if I really put my mind to it. Moreover, each time I supervise Casey’s doing the equations, I wonder if perhaps this might be the one time when I really and truly will be revealed to be a phony, revealed as a mom who can’t deal with anything and everything, and I will disappoint my children.

As a result, it takes an awful lot of energy for me to put on a cheery face when math homework appears out of the backpacks. I take deep breaths and tell myself that if an eight-year-old can be expected to solve the problems, then a forty-four-year-old mother can at least try to do the same.

So when Casey first needed help with fractions, I hauled out the measuring cups in the kitchen, and tried to figure out how much one half plus three quarters equals. I cracked open a Diet Coke—fervently wishing either that it would turn into a stiff vodka or that my financial-whiz husband would magically appear home early from work—and tried to keep my voice steady as I surveyed Casey’s fraction work sheet.

“See, Mommy,” my sweet Casey said, pointing to some figures. “I don’t know how to multiply the fractions, or divide the fractions. Can you help me?”

Multiply the fractions? Divide the fractions? Ugh—I couldn’t even show her how to add the fractions. And here’s the kicker . . . she had to show her work!

After she went to bed that night, I had a good long soak in the tub, trying to convince myself that a good-enough mother knows enough to look at the bright side. Diagram a sentence, done. Conjugate verbs, I’m there. Bring store-bought cupcakes to class, no problem. I negotiated an uneasy truce with myself, concentrating on my strengths and trying my utmost not to admit that there are still some things I will always suck at. Like fractions.

Wouldn’t you know, just when I was starting to believe I might be able to figure out the dreaded fractions, Casey came home one other fine day with a new way to strike terror into my heart.

That’s right, my old nemesis: long division. 

And now Cole is going through the thirdgrade, so out come the frantic calculations again. I know it’s going to be a whole lot more difficult, not only because geometry is looming and there’s no way I’m ever going to figure that stuff out, but also because Casey is good at sitting down to do her homework, while her dearest brother never saw an assignment he didn’t want to wiggle out of.

To be honest, one of the reasons our rule about homework is “Get it done ASAP” is so I can look forward to a nice dinner and an evening devoid of fractions.

But despite my best efforts, back when Cole was in second grade, nothing could stop a certain something from happening that felt like a hot poker to the gut.

That certain something was a note from the teacher.

And not just any note, nor just any teacher.

This was a note from Mrs. Henry.

The mere sound of Mrs. Henry’s voice was guaranteed to send me into paroxysms of terror. And now she’d sent a note home with Cole. Hands trembling, I carefully plucked the large green Post-it off Cole’s spelling homework.

I think we need to have a conference at your earliest convenience, it read.

My knees practically buckled.

After I quizzed my second-born about the reason for the note, he finally managed to stammer that, well, okay, maybe he did have a homework problem. One that went beyond a math-incompetent mother.

And then there was the matter of the bass. It seemed that he’d tied his shoelaces together and had been bunny-hopping around the music room, one of his preferred school time activities, and, as usual, had lost his balance. While toppling over, he’d nearly busted the school’s upright bass. A bass that cost upward of a cool thousand bucks. That’s a whole lot of weeks of a five-dollar allowance to pay off that debt, I managed to explain to Cole, whose eyes only got bigger and rounder as the specter of NO ALLOWANCE UNTIL HE WAS TWELVE finally wove its way into the dense thicket of his gray matter.

But back to homework. The real pisser was that that night I’d arrived home at seven thirty p.m., after leaving the house at four a.m., to find Buff with his feet nonchalantly propped up on the desk while the kids were running wild. Seriously. Casey was behaving nearly normally (for her), but Cole had placed Scotch tape over his mouth and eyes and was navigating the spiral staircase in a pair of slippery socks. For crying out loud, the only thing missing was a knife between his lips!

And when I tried to ask Buff in a calm voice if the homework had been done, his reply was: “They told me it was.”

At which point I began to lose what little mind I had left. “Buff,” I said in what I hoped was a more than-stern-get-your-damn-feet-down-off-the-desk-and-listen voice. “You cannot ask if the homework is done. You have to check it—much the way our government asks rogue nations if they have nuclear weapons, and even then the CIA still has to verify. If there’s one thing you ought to know by now, it’s that you can never take your own children’s word at face value whenever the topic is homework.”

Because Buff is not a good-enough mother like yours truly, he gave me his typical response to the aforementioned more-than-stern-get-your-damn-feet-down-off-the-desk-and-listen voice.

He shrugged.

So I schlepped over to the kids’ backpacks to fish for the homework. I already knew what I would find: homework so incomplete it would undoubtedly receive an I for a grade. Casey hadn’t done her sketch of the moon, which had been her assignment for the previous three heavily overcast days, but her excuse was at least valid—the clouds had gotten in her way.

Cole couldn’t blame his undone spelling list on the clouds. Worse, stuck to his paper was the dreaded note from the teacher.

I’m afraid to say that my response was not pretty.

Buff finally removed his tootsies from the desk, and went stomping off in search of his favorite loungewear. Never mind that his favorite loungewear is a ratty velour sweat suit. Buff knew he’d messed up. The week before, I’d explained to him (for the umpteenth time) that if Cole got bad reports from school, or didn’t finish his homework, the TV had to stay off. Naturally, at the time, Buff had been in complete and total agreement with me.

But tonight, when the buck had stopped with Buff, he’d totally dropped the ball. He hadn’t even glanced at the homework—if he had, he’d have seen the dreaded note.

And Cole would not have already consumed several hours of television he’d known he wasn’t supposed to be watching.

Now, I need to make it clear that when I examine the homework, I don’t literally correct my kids’ mistakes. If I see a lot of errors, however, I’ll sit down with them and make some helpful suggestions for corrections and gently explain what might have been confusing or done too quickly. Casey and Cole know that I never make excuses for them if their homework hasn’t been done properly. (Of course, I never, ever do the fractions, and wouldn’t even if I knew how!)

That’s because I’m busy placing a certain ratty velour sweat suit on a makeshift funeral pyre in the backyard.

Seriously, though, it is easier to deal with the homework when there’s a routine. Children thrive on a regular schedule, and I started small with Casey and Cole. They get home from school, put down their backpacks (okay, fling them down with a sigh and a thump is more like it), have a snack, decompress for a while, and then they know it’s time for homework. It’s especially crucial to set up a schedule similar to this one (and it can be pushed back till after dinner if there are after-school activities) when kids are young, because it instills in them the knowledge that homework is a given, and that it must be done. The deeper the homework habit is entrenched, the easier homework will be to manage when kids reach middle and high school and the pressures and demands of homework become far more intense.

One problem I need to stay on top of is that Cole wants to do the homework only for subjects he likes. Getting him to do the rest can degenerate into a battle. He has a real aptitude for math, which delights me because I have fewer fractions to worry about, but his spelling and reading assignments can be tough. I explain to him that grown-ups often have to deal with the same situation at work. For instance, I sometimes have to report on something I’m not totally passionate about, but I need to do it with the same level of enthusiasm and professionalism as I would for a topic I’m thrilled by. He understands that, of course, but it doesn’t make the grumbling any less annoying!

I really am strict about no TV or computer time until the homework is done and I’ve inspected it. But when the weather is nice, I don’t insist that Casey and Cole do their homework the minute they walk in the door after school. In fact, I kick them right back out again, to go play in the big backyard for an hour or so before coming back in to tackle the work. That’s what the yard is there for, and after being cooped up in classes all day, it does their bodies (and minds) good to get out and run around and scream and shout and throw some balls with Olivia.

This is something I learned from my mother. Since we grew up in California, where the weather was usually lovely, Mom insisted that we get our homework done as quickly as possible, so my sister and I had the rest of the afternoon to play outside with our friends, or hang out, or read, or drive our mother crazy.

One thing that drives this mother crazy is school projects. I don’t mind helping Casey and Cole put things together once they’ve conceptualized the project, but I do mind that other parents are so determined to impress the teacher that they end up doing all the work themselves. (You know, decorating the projects with Sistine Chapel–worthy paintings, hand-looming a blanket, building a Noah’s ark out of toothpicks and cedar shavings, tatting lace, or cultivating a few bonsai atop a miniature lily pond stocked with baby koi.)

For a Valentine’s Day project last year, Casey needed to decorate a shoe box to hold her valentine cards. We found a terrific box and she and I got this ridiculous idea of covering the entire box in crepe paper. After spending the next five hours covering a scant quarter of the box, I asked myself for the umpteenth time why we couldn’t have come up with a better way. (I loved doing the project together, but, well, five hours with crepe paper is about four too many.)

Luckily, I thought, Cole only had to do a shoe-box lunch for his Valentine’s Day project. Shoe-box lunches sound simple, but they often aren’t. Each student picks a name of a classmate out of a hat, and then has to bring in either a shoebox or a metal lunch box decorated with something the classmate likes, along with his or her favorite food and drink tucked inside.

Cole’s recipient was a soccer player, so I went online to buy a soccer-themed lunch box. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Cole told me about this Valentine’s Day project only three days before it was due (and, naturally, over the weekend), so I had to pay for extra shipping to get the specific lunch box in time. A four-dollar lunch box ended up costing forty.

Don’t even get me started on the dreaded dioramas. My heart usually sinks when I hear that one has been assigned, not only because by the time I get home from work my brain cells either are on strike or are fried to a crisp—and I often find it hard to help Cole come up with something fanciful and complicated at a moment’s notice—but also because this assignment can degenerate into a snarky competition among the parents, each trying to outdo the other with the sophistication of their conceptualizing and the rarity of the materials. There’s no way I can compete with the parents who have  time to comb eBay for one-of-a-kind items—such as miniature Hummers or porcelain dolls with dresses handcrafted by Lithuanian seamstresses—in order to build perfect, museum-quality dioramas.

Plus, I am adamant that I will not do all of my kids’ work for them.

Nor, truth be told, do I want to. Children need to know that the power of their own imagination is far more potent and fascinating than any designer-labeled item their parents can scrounge around for or score for them. They should be dreaming up ideas for their dioramas on their own, to be built with their own hands from materials they can easily procure on a limited budget (if that). But this becomes next to impossible when their projects are judged against the well-financed, architecturally blueprinted projects created by parents. I don’t want my children to feel inadequate when their lovingly homemade projects are deemed inferior because the rules of the competition are unfairly rigged against them, but I have as yet been unable to convince the teachers to state unequivocally that parental guidance and hands-on assistance is forbidden.

So when Cole once “forgot” to tell me he had to do a dreaded diorama of a fairy tale (he’d chosen Jack and the Beanstalk), it nearly did me in.

Off we drove to the local supersize drugstore, my mind racing with ideas of how to cram a little Jack and a giant Giant into the shoe box of the dreaded diorama as I made Cole think aloud about ideas. The only thing at the store that could possibly pose as Jack was a small green soldier, but he was holding a machine gun. I shuddered and put him back on the shelf. Then after another twenty minutes of searching, we found another character, but he was too big to be Jack, so we decided he’d be a good giant. After more fruitless searching, it was back to the machine-gun-toting soldier.

“Mommy, it’s fine,” Cole said. “Let’s just get something green to be the bean stalk.”

Right. When Buff got home, he heard the entire story, took one look at my face, and then went out into the backyard with an anxious Cole and dug up a piece of turf with an enormous weed growing in it. When Cole saw that, he was thrilled, and knew exactly what to do with it.

Voilà, the dreaded diorama—a gun-wielding psycho Jack, a large stuffed Giant, and a weed for a bean stalk. And it cost only a couple of bucks. It looked, well, unique. Cole was thrilled that both his parents had helped him construct it—but more important, he learned that no matter what his diorama  looked like in comparison to the psycho-free shoe boxes of his classmates, he’d done most of it himself. He was proud of his efforts and he knew we were proud of it.

Fortunately, the dreaded dioramas don’t get assigned all that often, but daily homework does. I know there’s a lot of vociferous debate about kids being given endless hours of sometimes numbingly repetitious busy work and homework, but in our school district I don’t find Casey and Cole overburdened—yet. Casey doesn’t mind doing homework—in fact, she likes it. She’s an even more voracious reader than I was at her age. Whenever I take her to a bookstore, she wants to move in. Cole, on the other hand, wants to buy books only if they come with a toy. Motivating him to get the homework done, or to read for pleasure, is much more of a struggle. I’m riding him like the Romans rode Spartacus.

Which is why I was so surprised one night when I was relaxing with the kids and Casey handed me her notebook to sign. I was full of pride as I went over the things she’d accomplished, but my bubble quickly burst when I saw an item she was supposed to bring to school. A gallon.

A gallon of what? Milk? Spit? Paint? I had no idea. Worse, Casey didn’t either. She was nearly in tears, since she so rarely forgets anything, and was becoming increasingly upset at the thought of not fulfilling an assignment. Normally, of course, I would have made her suffer the consequences of her forgetfulness, but a good-enough mother knows when to forgive a legitimate oversight and deal with it as best she can on the spur of the moment.

So although both of us were half-asleep, we spent the next half hour searching the house until we realized we didn’t even have a gallon. Of anything.

Casey’s tears began to flow in earnest, and I kissed them away and told her to go to sleep and not to worry. Although she knew the rule—that she is responsible for reading all the notes in her backpack and has to face the consequences if something doesn’t get done—in this case I would make an exception because she’d made a genuinely honest mistake.

A good-enough mother always knows when to bend the rules.

The only thing I could find on my way out the door at 4:10 the next morning was a half-filled half gallon carton of skim milk. So, what did I do? Dumped out the milk (mercifully there was another half gallon in the fridge), rinsed the carton three times, and compromised. A half gallon was better than none.

There. Crisis averted.

Just don’t ask me to add one half and three quarters.

Excerpted from "Good Enough Mother" by René Syler. Copyright ©2007. Excerpted by permission of Simon Spotlight Entertainment. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

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