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Love it or hate it, a new school year is starting. In honor of the season of Trapper Keepers, #2 pencils, new shoes, and teary goodbyes, here’s my new column for Seattle’s Child.

My eldest daughter started kindergarten last year, and I’m not gonna lie, it was an adjustment. She summed up the experience quite handily at the end of the first week: “There’s too much hustle-and-bustle, too much blah blah blah, and NOT ENOUGH MOM.”

My kindergartener, Sept 2010

I have to say, it was hard to argue. We believe in lax, unscheduled summers for our kids and I work less for those months, so we get into a nice rhythm of picnics, parks, and pajamas worn past noon. Then suddenly, it’s that time of year again, when all the backpacks in the universe land in the front of stores with a resounding thud. No more lazy popsicle days in the backyard; it’s time for alarm clocks, homework, and yes, hustle-and-bustle.

No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of parent you imagine yourself to be (helicopter, free range, or something in between), there is one great leveler that hits us all in the gut in the same way. I’m referring, of course, to the day your first child starts kindergarten.

It doesn’t matter whether your child has been in full-time daycare since infancy, went to years of preschool, or has never left your side, the start of “real school” is a major milestone, fraught with emotion for everyone. Even if you have honestly longed for this day, something happens when you see your child heading out with a huge backpack, new shoes, and a lunchbox: you can’t help but picture the baby you rocked in your arms, the toddler who stripped her clothes off in public places, the preschooler who put marbles in his nose. How did your child become so grown up? And how have you gone from total novice to kindergarten parent?

When my daughter took the plunge, even though she had had three years of preschool, it was akin to watching her learn to walk. Suddenly, she was moving away from me and toward something else. And just like with those first toddling steps, a million little steps followed in quick succession as the year progressed.

Drop-offs that had been painfully dramatic got less so. Physical feats were tackled in short order: scooter, monkey bars, jump rope. Letters that were previously jumbled all over the page suddenly began to form (relatively) straight lines. Friends were made. My daughter began telling funny stories, described favorite parts of the day, and proudly showed me the way to the cafeteria, library, and office by herself.

But she also shared the downside: playground politics that left her the odd one out, hurtful comments about something she wore, insufferable classroom activities (calendar math!), and more than anything, the overwhelming longing to be home with her family. “I have to go here every day?” she figured out, aghast, about two weeks in. “Are you kidding me?”

It’s impossible to tackle the transition to school without some anxiety on both sides. But, as with any new routine, consistency and a positive outlook (even on days you aren’t feeling it) go a long way. In the hectic, stressful moments of the morning routine, stop for a second to take a deep breath, hug your child, and tell him or her how proud you are—and that you understand starting something new isn’t always easy, even for the grown-ups. Let your child know that even when you’re apart, you are always together. Instead of rushing out the door, offer that extra reassurance and affection that they might not even know they need. (After all, being a few minutes late isn’t the end of the world.)

Remember, some kids take to kindergarten like fish to water, others take longer to adjust and need more support along the way. The same goes for the parents. No matter how you feel when the classroom door shuts on that first day – elated, free, nostalgic, lonely, excited, blue – it’s okay. This is but one of many big moments yet to come, and you’re doing a beautiful job. After all, you’ve raised a kindergartener!

What was the transition to kindergarten like for your family? We’d love to hear about it!

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“No! He wants the OTHER binky!”
“That diaper is too tight!”
“The bath water is too warm!”
“You can’t take her outside in that!”
“What do you mean, you forgot the giraffe?”
“Here, let me do it!”

Sound familiar? In the stressful and overwhelming throes of new babyhood, moms often tell dads the “right” way to do everything from soothing the baby to prepping for a walk around the block. It can be an urge that is almost impossible to resist, especially if she is the primary caregiver and a first-time mom who wants, desperately, to do everything for her child in the best possible way. Moms, we know you mean well and you’re just trying to help. And of course, you have oodles of knowledge to share, especially if you spend more time actively parenting than he does. But be warned of something I’ve seen happen time and again: after being corrected repeatedly, week in and week out, many dads simply give up trying and let you do all the work—because after all, you know best. Soon you might find yourself doing every single bath, meal, and bedtime routine on your own. And more importantly, you might unwittingly keep your partner from the essential experience of finding his own way with his kids (and yes, they do have their own way—different from yours—and it’s okay). And that would be a shame.

Hey, if you’re lucky enough to have a partner in this whole parenting venture, you owe it to yourself and your family to take advantage of it. It’s not only good for you and your partner to each get 1:1 time with your child (and solo time when it’s the other person’s turn), it’s good for the baby, too. If you’re still in the middle of the newborn era, believe me, the time will come when you realize with all your being that it’s much better to share the parenting load—even if you hate the outfit he picked out or don’t think a trip to Home Depot during naptime is such a good idea. In honor of Dad’s Day, maybe try to have that time be now. Let go a little bit. Let him have his own parenting successes and his own disasters, just like you do, and his own chance to bond during all those moments. Left to his own devices, without anyone hovering in the background, dad will probably find his own funny bath time song, his own way of holding junior to calm the crying, his own system for getting the baby’s shoes on in a snap. And get this: YOU might even learn a little something from HIM.

Rob & the girls


To all the dads out there (and the moms who love them), Happy Father’s Day!

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Sunday, as all the world knows, was the US-Canada gold medal hockey game. My husband is Canadian and a diehard hockey fan, as all true Canadians are. He’s also a super-involved dad and our Sundays are usually family time, but come on. I sent him to a bar where he could watch the game without kids climbing on him, asking for this and that, or loudly requesting that he change the channel to Dragon Tales. And I did it happily (well, mostly), knowing my turn will be next.

We all tell our kids to do it, but first-time parents can be really, really bad at taking turns–and by this I mean handing off the baby now and again in order to have some kid-free time without guilt. Maybe it’s hormonal, maybe it’s primal, but brand-new parents can feel an inherent need to be present in their baby’s life every possible moment (okay, maybe this is more common in moms). After all, what if her first giggle is the day you stay home from the park? What if he needs you while you’re getting your hair cut? And isn’t it selfish to read a magazine on the couch while your partner does the bedtime routine? Of course, besides your own feelings on letting go, the other issue is your partner, and whether you feel supported in your time away. Taking turns doesn’t work if you feel you have to watch the clock and/or grovel to prevent a looming relationship meltdown when you return to parenting duty.

Repeat after us: TAKE TURNS. Second-time parents have learned that the best thing about having only one child is that you and your partner get to do this. If you choose to have another baby, it will be a 1:1 parent-child ratio (or you’ll be outnumbered by your kids!) from that moment on. Embrace your chance now to enjoy the guilt-free handoff. Learn this lesson early, in babyhood, and you’ll find your way to a healthier family balance going forward.

Tell us:

How have you and your partner learned take turns?

Have any relationship issues arisen from taking time away from the baby or kids?

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As expecting parents, many of us read all the “how-to” books we could get our hands on. But most parents we interviewed for our book, How to Have Your Second Child First, said they wished they’d spent less time reading about pregnancy (which is but a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things), and more about life as a parent. These don’t have to be “parenting books.” Sometimes, the most helpful “parenting books” are novels, short stories, or essays that speak to the emotional landscape of being a mom or dad, or the intricacies of building a family. Here are a few books we really enjoyed that feature parenthood as a theme…not as instruction. We’d love for you to add to the list!

  

  • Manhood for Amateurs, essays by Michael Chabon
  • Mothers Who Think, essay collection edited by Camille Peri
  • Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year by Louise Erdrich
  • The Brambles, a novel by Eliza Minot
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jumpha Lahiri
  • And I’ve heard great things about Operating Instructions by Annie Lamott, about raising a boy.

What books have spoken to you as a parent? Share your recommendations with others!

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If your household includes one person who works more hours outside the home and one who is the primary caregiver, you’ve likely had this exchange (either out loud or in your head): “Easy for you to say, you get to go to work! You get to have coffee breaks and go to the bathroom! You get to talk to adults!” or, on the other side of the coin, “You get to have quality time with our child! You’re at the park instead of on a terrible commute! You don’t have the stress of earning the main income!” Ah, how the grass is always greener on the other side of the parenting fence. One of you, especially at certain frustrated moments, envisions office life as all sunshine and butterflies (easily forgetting all those terrible meetings, pressing deadlines, and unappreciative bosses), while the other person can’t figure out why dinner isn’t ready and the toys aren’t picked up after all those hours of “fun” staying at home with baby. The underlying question in all these conversations seems to be: Who’s working harder here?

In our book, it’s what we call the Unwinnable Argument. You simply can’t compare, and it’s not fair to think either party has it easy. If you are feeling resentful or put out—whether you work full-time, work part-time, or are a full-time parent—talk about it. Explain how things feel to you, and then listen to your partner. Dig deep and find ways to say thank you for what your partner is doing on a daily basis…even if you secretly believe it’s not as much as what you’re doing. Remember you are in this together. Do not become one of those couples who make pointed jabs at one another, trying to prove how much tougher you have it to anyone within earshot.

Tell us: Do you and your partner argue about who is working harder? If only one of you works full-time, do you each feel resentful at times about what the other one “gets” to do? How do you handle this?

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For writers, it’s the oldest advice in the book: write about what you know. It’s something I’ve always done, writing books about relationships, the joy of cocktails, and even Canada (with my Canadian husband, Rob Sorensen). But now it’s evolved even further. One could say our work and home life have truly morphed into one: Rob and I both work at home, and we are co-parents of young children and co-authors of a new parenting book, How to Have Your Second Child First: 100 Things That Would Be Good to Know—the First Time Around.

With two daughters age four and two, our upcoming book, and the idea behind it, is very close to home. It evolved because how we parent our second child versus our first is something we seem to talk about endlessly with our friends who are in the same boat, and with each other after the kids are in bed. We are continually fascinated in the differences between our two girls, and the different ways we approach what comes our way each day. We laugh at how we used to run all the way upstairs to change a diaper because that’s where the changing table was (needless to say, our second child is used to being changed on whatever surface is handy) or how we worried about every snuffling sound that came from the crib. With experience, of course, comes some level of calm—and greater efficiency quickly becomes necessary with two or more children. But what if we could help advise first-time parents about tips and tricks that we learned the hard way? And what if we could start a dialogue where novice and seasoned parents could share information, advice, and support?

In this blog we’d like to act as moderators, helping both seasoned and novice parents share their thoughts, fears, successes, and disasters. Experienced moms and dads, we invite you to share your lessons learned, shortcuts devised, products you came to love (or hate), and parenting or relationship challenges that continue to plague you—as well as ones you no longer lose sleep over, and why. New or expecting parents, use this blog as a way to eavesdrop on, and ask frank questions of, parents who have been around the block. You know how parents with two or three kids always seem so together, when you are first feeling your way in the world with a baby? How do they do it, when just one child seems so overwhelming? Here’s a place to benefit from all their advice, and pose specific queries and comments, too…with none of the repercussions that might filter into the same conversations had with family members.

Directly or indirectly, every day we learn something new as parents, even if it’s just about ourselves. We encourage you to please share your thoughts, opinions, advice, and questions…and please pass this on to all your friends so they can join the conversation too.

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