Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Live If Lies Let You

Some ten years ago, on an impromptu party in a beautiful home in Forest Hill (Toronto’s posh neighbourhood), three ‘privileged’ teenagers decided to get drunk, raid the fully loaded bar and even steal some cash. They were caught as soon as my friends - parents of the boy who thought he could throw a party then get away with it - returned from a weekend abroad. The perpetrators were all in Grade 12. They were 18 years old. 

The debate ensued: what should be the correct course of action? Legally they were all adults. Calling police would earn them a permanent record. Telling teachers might ruin the reputation of otherwise decent boys, a reputation essential to the second last report card - the one that goes to desired universities. Telling their wealthy parents… Ouch!

My friend, one of the wisest and kindest people I know, decided to try a new approach. After the boys replenished everything they had drunk and stolen they sat remorsefully in front of her, fully owning up to their stupidity and awaiting the verdict: 
Each boy was assigned to do some volunteer work at three of her friends who needed help. This happened to be the fall of my slow recovery from the West Nile Virus so one of the young men, Andy, was assigned to me. Andy’s job was to help rake our backyard which was filled beyond recognition with leaves that two giant sycamore trees from the neighbouring schoolyard would mercilessly dump each October.

Andy arrived on time and knocked at the door. He tried to act cool although I felt a shadow of the shame a culprit would wear to a mandatory Saturday work session.  
“Hey dude! Thanks for coming. We need you!”  were the words that did the magic. Andy realized there would be no mentioning of the mishap. His shoulders relaxed and a faint smile crossed his face. 

For a while, the three of us worked together - Andy and I raking and my son Filip, who was ten at the time, packing the leaves in paper bags. When given a rake Filip had a tendency of regressing to a ninja warrior, fighting the piles of leaves, destroying the already packed bags and then claiming exhaustion. No rake for Filip! 

Once my limited energy had expired, I went inside to make hot cocoa while the boys worked. By the time I brought the second round of treats out, they were buddies. 

What stayed with me a decade later from that crisp fall day was not the ease of redemption. Or how strangers—a teen and a tween—could bond in an instant over a chore. It was Andy’s father. When he came to pick him up he shook my hand with both of his and said:
 "Thank you for helping Andrew co-create his experience surrounding this incident. It is people like your friend and yourself who allowed Andy to grow into his learning and restore his integrity. I am very grateful to you for creating a safe space for him.”

Until then, I had never heard such terminology used in parenting: co-create, grow into learning, safe space, integrity. 
“Excuse me for asking, but what do you do for a living?” I asked, expecting to hear he was a family therapist.
“I’m a Life Coach” he said, nodding slightly.  “I work with corporate VPs and executives. For sure it’s making me a way more effective and sane parent.”

Later that evening, I called the friend who had sent Andy to me to tell her of this profound parenting experience and also to share that after talking to the dad for an hour I had decided to become a life coach myself and attend the same school where he had trained.

“Oh, I am so happy for you!” she said “because, you see, the other two boys never showed up at their volunteer assignments. Their parents bailed them out.”

Often in life the ‘parent’ will not know how to parent. There will be rulebooks to read, papers to sign, curfews to obey. And still, when it comes to enforcing the rules and living the values that are the very fibre of the family more often than not the parent will decide to do nothing.The drunk teen will keep driving dad’s car. Steal smaller bills from the wallet. Harass his younger sister. I am never sure if the parent is so oblivious that she believes it’s just a phase or is it sheer ignorance? Could it be that someone told her to shut up!? 

Thank goodness - we all get to choose what we do in our own home, with the ones we are responsible for!  

The true gift of my decade of single parenting enhanced by life coach training and an unwavering set of core values, not much different from those my parents and grandparents held - is that I see things with laser-sharp clarity as they unfold in real time. And I am unwilling to lie to myself. And since my parenting is not a job but a calling, it is with 100% probability that my kids know: if I do this, mama will do that. It is exactly that predictability - no matter how un-cool or boring it sounds - that is the backbone of our family and the real deal behind the unconditional love. 
I love you so much that I will never lie for you. 
I respect you so much that I will help you learn to live with integrity. 
It always starts with me.  

Thankfully, it doesn't end with me. New generations of knowledge-empowered, empathetic and passionate truth-seekers is conquering what's left of the stale, corrupted and complacent world. In the following 'viral' five and half minutes, Donovan Livingston will inspire our children to become the "thorn in the side of injustice".
Perhaps it's time for "parents" to unlearn the art of lying.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Dial M for: Marriage, Motherhood, Memoir

On today's date 22 years ago I didn't know it was Mother's Day weekend.
Serbia doesn't do Mother's Day, or Father's Day for that matter.

Twenty two years ago May 7th was "Djurdjevdan" - a big day in Serbian Christian-Orthodox Calendar represented by St.George on the White horse slaying a dragon. It's a patron saint day of many families in Belgrade, though not mine. On Saturday, May 7, 1994 my family was celebrating something completely different: their daughter's wedding. 
That daughter happened to be me. 

The decision to marry my boyfriend, once I had dated him for a few years, while diligently completing all the checkmarks my parents had insisted on (graduate from university, license as a pharmacist, find a good job, not get pregnant etc.) - well, the talented Bruno Mars perfectly sums it all up in the very first verse of  "Marry You" : "It's a beautiful night, We're looking for something dumb to do, hey baby, I think I wanna marry you!"
The initial wedding date was supposed to be in early April since my sister was emigrating to Canada in mid May and I wanted to give my parents a breather between these two monumental events in our family life. However, my pharmacy technician Mira, who was much older and wiser and also hypnotically persuasive - all that gypsy blood flowing through her veins - told me as we were manning a heavy afternoon shift in the pharmacy wholesale warehouse: "Never marry in April. April marriage--April joke." May 7th seemed like a perfect and safe day. 

Mother's Day 1996 was on May 12th. I wish I knew Mother's Day existed, not because by then I was a mom for the whole 110 days. I wish I knew because by then I learned how much I needed a mom, how much my mom meant to me and how at peace I was with everything that happened as if I wasn't doing my motherhood all by myself. If there is anything that touches the essence of my mom's motherhood it is the first few months of me being a mom - in my case, a single mom. 

My mom welcomed me home after a failed marriage. 
My mom went with me for ultrasounds and doctor's appointments.
My mom was at the hospital the night I gave birth to my son. 
My mom assembled (having our friends and neighbours pass down baby items) the most magical nursery for me to enjoy and heal in.
My mom woke up every night to keep me company while I breastfed. 
My mom cooked delicious home-made soups and baked pies.
My mom ironed mountains of cloth diapers each and every day. 
Bajce the Best!
My mom cleaned projectile vomits, soothed the crying baby and readily managed diaper explosions.
My mom patiently fed him his first solid foods. 
My mom assured me there is no rush to potty train. 
My mom...
My mom followed us to Canada at age 60.
My mom was my son's day-care. And a tutor. And a bestie. And a confidant.
My mom saved my sanity. And taught me everything I know about motherhood. 
And if I had to choose between that husband or this mom - I would've gone for this mom every single time!

I'm aware of my incredible good luck to have this mom be my mom. 
I measure my great luck for being a mother of three boys myself, while still having my mom around - fun and wise and full of life. 
And to make sure my boys will know how to carry our good fortune and extraordinary parenting forward, I'm researching, interviewing and capturing it all in a memoir. 
Here is an excerpt of an early draft:

        It was January. There was no baby formula. No glider chair. No dryer. Only lukewarm radiators. 
I am sitting on a sturdy orange kitchen chair in what used to be the bedroom my sister and I shared as teenagers. My leg is propped on a ledge, my whole body coiled uncomfortably on one side trying to avoid—sitting. 
The newborn in my arms is crying. His mouth gaping open, like in cartoons. Red toothless gums framing a miniature paper-thin tongue. It’s a hungry, frustrated cry. 
I’m crying. Mine is an exhausted, desperate cry. Manual for new moms was clear about breastfeeding. “Offer the breast whenever the baby cries. Mother’s milk is perfectly nutritious, served at the ideal temperature and always bacteriologically safe.” 
Mother’s breasts, the book failed to mention, were swollen and tender, chestnuts tightly packed into a balloon, hard from the milk that started pouring out all at once through the utterly unprepared ducts. The yellowish, greasy colostrum was everywhere, soaking and staining my bra and my PJs, spraying baby’s eyelashes, getting into his nostrils, sticking in his tiny soft golden hairs. It went everywhere but into his mouth. 
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Crying, chanting, I rocked myself front and back then stopped jolted by the sharp pain. The tiny mouth managed to latch and started sucking, sounding big gulps, almost choking at times, gnawing the nipple until it bled, yet never letting it go. I was nursing a wolf, not a boy. 
It was January. There was no maternity-leave pay for a retail pharmacy manager. Equal opportunity anything hadn't arrived in Serbia. No food in the supermarkets. No gas at the stations. Pampers for newborns sourced on the black market, too big for the skinny 6-pound body. One diaper, one Deutsch mark. 
“You WILL grow to hate me. You will look at me one day and ask ‘how could someone fail so profoundly at basically everything? At motherhood. At breastfeeding. At providing you with a warm room to sleep in. A clean diaper. A safe childhood. A normal family. A country with no war.’” 
The father-to-be handed me an envelope with neatly signed, stacked and stapled divorce papers ten days before the baby was born. “In case the child is born alive (for still birth please see below), the mother has the right to give the name and make sole decisions regarding medical, religious, educational and all other needs.” Then he disappeared. 

Twenty years later, I am sitting on a chair watching a 6’4”, broad-shouldered man with a hipster beard pack the last few items he’ll need in his sophomore year. Laptop—check. Guitar—check.
“Filip, how was it growing up with just me… never meeting your biological father?” 

“Oh, mama!” He turns around and gently taps the top of my head. Then he smiles. “It was magical!”
Happy Mother's Day!