School supplies for Mom

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver

I have a hunch that fall will arrive early this year. Maybe its the angle of sunlight on the black-eyed Susans in our perennial garden. Or maybe it’s the snap and crunch of acorns under my tires when I bicycle around the neighborhood.

Whatever triggers it, I cant ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies — even though I dont have a student anymore.

It’s been four years since my son moved to his own place in Chicago. Yet I still struggle to wrap my mind around the fact that Im officially an empty nester.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood — the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch boxes — I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my little boy started school each year. Id thank the Blessed Mother every time I dropped him off at the local Catholic grade school, believing it was a miracle to have several kid-free hours a day to meet deadlines and run errands all by myself. In those days, the calendar on our kitchen wall was a perpetual list of music lessons, Cub Scout meetings, school conferences, field trips, baking marathons, and rotating carpool schedules. (And I was the mother of an only child.)

Even now, I cant fathom how any parent finds the time to juggle it all, no matter how many children she has.

Spreading my own wings

In retrospect, Im surprised at how long it took to adjust to the void my son left when he moved into his freshman dorm at college. His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping its door shut. Up until then, I hadnt fully realized that the vocation I’d enjoyed most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was mothering.

Determined not to become a long-distance helicopter parent, I had to figure out where to devote my maternal energy during this uncharted phase of my middle age. I needed to explore something different — something just for myself. Was it time for a puppy or a brand-new hobby? The late-summer ritual of buying school supplies provided my first clue.

The week before his big move to college, my son and I headed for the nearest office supply store. While my son made a beeline for the computer supplies, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored markers, glitter glue and drawing pads.

And thats when my inner artist — whod been banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college — finally reasserted herself. I had no idea what she planned do with all the tubes of glitter glue and Magic Markers she tossed in our shopping cart, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think author John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Which is exactly what I needed at the time.

A month later, I went shopping for real art supplies at Michael’s craft store, where I also discovered several art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. By the end of that fall, Id started clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. While my son studied (and partied) through his freshman year at college, I happily painted, cut, and pasted a whole new path of my own.

No matter how old we are, school bells signal a change of seasons and inspire us all to start something fresh. For me, its time to put the garden to rest and head back indoors to discover where art will lead me next. In preparation for a new season of creative projects, Ive already swept the floor of the studio, which I now consider my classroom. Last week I made a list of the things I’ll need to get started — and I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

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The family columnist

We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”  ~Stacia Tauscher

Relying on our kids to provide column fodder is hardly new. Today there are countless “mommy blogs” and family sites online. But it was fun to reminisce about my own column-writing days in a new Home Forum essay for The Christian Science Monitor. I approached the piece with a light hand — but some heavier issues lurk between the lines. How much ink is appropriate to give our kids? How do we know if we’ve overstepped our boundaries or violated their privacy? Please click here to read the new essay. –CL

Mommy Wars…again?

The phrase ‘working mother’ is redundant.” — Jane Sellman

So, who imagined that we’d be fighting the “mommy wars” … again … after all these years?

I’ve been working this month on a brand-new preface for the ebook edition of Writing Home, which my editor will finish converting within the next couple of weeks. In my new introduction, I felt the need to explain or redefine the so-called “mommy wars” — mainly because I hadn’t heard the phrase as often, and it places my parenting essays within a key social context. As I typed, I wondered: Do younger women even remember the old mommy wars?

Well, before I had a chance to proofread my new paragraphs, the remark made by Hilary Rosen Wednesday night reheated the issue and possibly set us back a few years.

If you’re not familiar with my book, I should explain that many of the motherhood essays in Writing Home were originally published in the early 1990s. At the time, parents and pundits alike were still arguing over “career versus family” — and the emotionally loaded debate fueled newspaper and magazine sales. Mothers were labeled with acronyms that sounded like Dr. Seuss characters: SAHM (stay-at-home mom); WAHM (work-at-home mom) or WM (working mom).

When I first started writing family columns and essays in the 1980s, the notion of working from home — so common today — was as new as the Internet that was making it all possible. (Blogging and social media were merely Silicon Valley fantasies in those days.) One of the pieces in my book, for instance, chronicles how proud I felt when I bought my first computer and moved my writing desk from the basement to a room in the main part of our house. Regardless, my toughest challenge was the same challenge every mother faces today: Striking a healthy balance for my family and for myself.

Meanwhile, the battle raged between moms who worked outside the home and those who didn’t. I watched it all from my home-office window, meeting my story deadlines while I babysat the children of friends who worked full time.

By the time my son graduated from high school in 2004, most mothers seemed to have reached a truce. We respected the lifestyle choices other women made, even when those choices didn’t mesh with our own. The truly wise among us understood that the woman who stayed home to raise her kids was no less a feminist than the mother who put in 45 hours a week at the office.

“I have several strategies for healing the mommy wars. First and foremost is to decide that its time to work together,” notes Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., author of Mojo Mom. “Any effort that women spend judging each other is wasted energy that could be used instead to work together for common goals. If you think about it, there is really no ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ only ‘us.'”

My own hope is that we — all of “us” — will finally come to terms and stop overlooking the real political issues at hand, including childcare. We can do better and our kids deserve more. –Cindy La Ferle

Call of the wild

Camping is nature’s way of promoting the motel industry.”  ~Dave Barry, The Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need

A sentimental favorite of mine, this essay originally appeared in The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Sunday Magazine in 1996, and was republished last year in Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors by Jennifer Bove. Have you been camping yet this summer?

Mother and Son Answer the Call of the Wild

Thanks to my previous career as a travel editor, I know how to rate a mattress and a motel bathroom. I’m right at home in a wicker rocker on the front porch of a country inn, sipping a tall glass of iced tea while watching the sun dip behind a mountain range.

But until my son joined Cub Scouts two years ago, my getaways did not include wilderness adventures. To me, communing with nature meant reading Thoreau or potting begonias. Spending a weekend in the woods of rural Michigan — with a chorus of bull frogs, sundry snakes, ticks, two dozen little boys and their suburban-Detroit mothers — didn’t sound like my idea of a good time.

Like most parents, however, I’ve learned to adapt. And while I am not exactly what you’d call a happy camper, the Scouts have taught me to appreciate the Great Outdoors. In fact, this fall I’ll embark on my third annual “Mom & Me” camping weekend with Nate’s pack.

In addition to strengthening mother-son relationships, Mom & Me weekends were designed to refute the theory that women will not sleep with insects.

I’ve also learned that the travel writer’s motto, “Always pack light,” doesn’t apply to north woods camping. It’s much wiser to cram your suitcase with back-up sets of everything, including socks and underwear, and to expect emergencies. On our first outing, for instance, Nate fell into a bog within fifteen minutes of our arrival at the camp site. He had to borrow my hiking boots until his own dried out the next day. Meanwhile, I had no choice but to tour the swamp in soggy tennis shoes.

“These weekends really are an endurance test for the parents,” one mom confided, half-seriously.

The following year I stuffed half a dozen pairs of boots into the back of our Jeep, but forgot my own raincoat. Of course, that was the weekend it poured and poured …and poured.

I’ll never forget the sight of six devoted moms building a campfire in the evening drizzle. (We were determined to do this thing right: We were going to roast every single hot dog and melt every marshmallow we’d hauled along with our Dura-flame logs.) Our boys, however, were smart enough to hide from the rain. Searching the campground by flashlight, we finally found them in one of the cabins playing Life, the board game of the moment.

“Bring the hot dogs in here,” one nine-year-old demanded as he scooted his car-shaped marker across the board. “I’m getting ready to sell one of my houses and I’m having a midlife crisis!”

If we’re very lucky, the hike to the public restrooms is only 15 minutes (uphill) from our campsite. The trick, I found, is to keep a spare flashlight in your sleeping bag so that you can grab it quickly if nature calls at 2:00 a.m. — which isn’t unusual for middle-aged moms.

Nobody sleeps much on these weekends. The kids are buzzing on caffeine, having consumed several gallons of Pepsi and Mountain Dew. The moms, smelling like a bonfire and desperately wishing for one hot shower, toss fitfully in their sleeping bags while the boys play flashlight games and tell ghost stories.

“Did you hear the one about the one-eyed man who went berserk in the north woods and was NEVER FOUND…?”

After two nights like these, the long drive back on Sunday is tolerable only with a mug of instant coffee and the promise of a warm bath. Completely exhausted, Nate and I typically ride home in silence.

But on the way home from last October’s trip, he mumbled, “Thanks for the weekend, Mom. Great weekend.” Brief but sincere, it was a rare expression of unprompted gratitude.

Catching a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror, I remembered I wasn’t wearing any makeup. My eyes looked older, and in an instant I saw the years racing past me like the cars on the expressway. My boy looked older, too, his lanky body slouched on the seat next to me.

Suddenly, that weekend — my endurance test — seemed awfully short. I was proud of myself for hiking through swamps and building fires in the rain. — Cindy La Ferle, August 1996

— A slightly different version of this essay is included in my own essay collection, Writing Home. Photos by Cindy La Ferle —

Motherhood and letting go

Our goal is to work ourselves out of the job we spend a lifetime perfecting.” — Ann Pleshette Murphy

Coinciding with graduation season, Mother’s Day always tugs on my heartstrings. Not only do we celebrate the women who gave us life, or raised us, but we also pause to consider what it means to be a mother.

For mothers of high school and college seniors, graduation season is the gateway to a new phase of parenting. I talk about this issue — and the art of letting go — in today’s “No Place Like Home” column on Royal Oak Patch. Click here to read it.

-In the photo above: My son Nate’s graduation day at the University of Notre Dame, May 2008. At left: Nate’s girlfriend, Andrea; Nate; my husband, Doug; and me. —