Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Education in Trouble

I am seriously worried about our public education system in Illinois.

Here's the situation: The state of Illinois is behind in its payments to elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools to the tune of MILLIONS of dollars. In our city, school officials are coming to realize that they may never see that money.

So, there is a giant hole -- not of our making -- in our public school budget, and now officials have to scramble to 'adjust' the costs of education. That means, educators will be losing their jobs. Class sizes will increase. And, even as No Child Left Behind ramps up expectations for results in student testing [next year, 85% percent of students must meet or exceed standards in reading and math], we will be pulling the proverbial rug out from under the teachers we expect to deliver those results.

At this point, it doesn't really matter whose fault it is -- although most fingers point to politicians in Springfield. The sad reality is that small towns like ours are in serious trouble. Republicans and Democrats in our state government have failed our children.

They continue to fail them.

And teachers, students, parents, and school administrators are bearing the brunt of the consequences.

The lack of serious solutions makes me sick.

- Midwest Mom

Monday, February 22, 2010

Seven is a Lucky Number

My younger son turns seven today, and it's hard to believe how much he's grown.

The weekend was packed with fun. We had a roller skating party with friends from school and ALL the Illinois cousins...

For the party, I made one of the best cakes EVER! (And it was delicious!)

And today, we're headed to school to surprise him. (I can't wait.)

When I think back to this day, seven years ago, I am astounded that my little miracle -- conceived shortly after I had miscarried, carried to term, and delivered (VBAC) naturally -- could possibly be seven. He was so tiny when he was born, but when I first took him in my arms I remember feeling gratitude so overwhelming that it bordered on disbelief.

I'm still grateful for him -- every day. He is and always will be my treasure.

- Midwest Mom

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Parenting through Hard Times: Sharing the Load

Almost a year has passed, and times are still tough here in the Midwest. The foreclosure crisis has caused a strain that is still toppling families. Our dollars buy less than they did a year or two ago.

The good news? We've adjusted. And the changes we've made to our family finances have made our household budget a lot healthier. So, for us, the outlook is better.

But there are still jobs disappearing and families out there who are struggling. So I thought I'd resurrect this one from the files for the readers who need it most. It was originally published in April 2009.

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Yesterday I read the latest economic statistics, and the news wasn't happy. What has me most concerned was the number 8.4%. It's the number of home mortgage payments a month or more late in the state of Illinois. I can't stop the mental calculations.

Foreclosed Homes = Families in Trouble

Our children are smart enough to see the pensive look that sometimes crosses our faces. They know enough to ask questions of us when our heads are close, leaning over the newspaper, discussing friends and family members who have lost their jobs. They notice that we are buying less from the grocery store and the department store. When we schedule family fun, it is not a costly affair.

So far, when they ask, we have downplayed our inner worry; children should not have to bear the brunt of adult responsibilities. But we have shared tidbits here and there about the troubled economy. The question facing many parents right now is: how do you share the full reality of hard times with your kids? And should you?

I can't answer for every parent or every family, but I can share the approach we've come to.

Be Honest: Parents' first instinct is always to protect their children. But, when a bad economy threatens to change life dramatically, the best way to protect them may be to prepare them. In our case, we talk about work and expenses realistically with our children. We allow them to ask questions, and we answer those questions the best that we can. Often, we steer the conversation away from everyone's worst fears. But we make room for our children's fears to be expressed. We reassure, but we don't spin a fairy tale. It's a fine line to walk, being honest without scaring your children, but we do our best to walk it nonetheless.

Educate about Trade-offs: We have a birthday coming up. It won't be an all-out bash like we've had in the past. I will give my oldest some choices about how he would like to celebrate. If he chooses a bigger party with more people, the trade-off is that he will get smaller gifts from us, because the party itself will be more expensive. It is important to us that we explain the reality of our budget and leave the choices up to him. That way, he retains some control and learns to prioritize.

Emphasize Gratitude: When families don't have as much money in the household budget, it can be tempting to give in to self-pity. Sometimes it can be helpful to take time together to enjoy the simple things in our lives -- a long family bike ride, a hike in the woods, splashing in mud puddles, cooking together, planting a garden together, watching a beautiful sunset, visiting with Grandparents, watching the stars. These things are free. So is the fact that our family is together. Changing focus from what you are giving up to the blessings you have can be a gift to your children. And setting aside time each day to talk about what you're grateful for can foster a sense of peace in troubled times -- for parents and children.

Pray Together: Our family moved from Chicago to the Washington, DC metro area when I was about seven. It was 1979 and the housing market was very slow. My parents carried two mortgages for about 18 lean months. It was a hard time for such a large family -- my parents and six of us kids. My parents made the decision to put our worries in God's hands by adding a small prayer to our grace before meals. We just said, "Dear Lord, thank you for our house and please help us to sell our house." After the house finally sold, the prayer changed to "Thank you for our house and thank you for helping us sell our house." I think I included that prayer of gratitude in my private prayers for at least a decade afterward. Now that I'm an adult and shoulder the burdens of our family finances, I understand why my parents chose to pray the way they did. They were sharing the load of their worries with us and with someone infinitely more powerful. They were giving voice to their concerns and also handing over control. When the time was right, a buyer emerged and my parents worked with that family to make our old home their first home. Theirs was a great example to me, and now I draw strength from prayer, putting worry in its place so I can take care of my responsibilities.

Share the Plan: Being honest with your children about how the economy will effect your life is an important step. Possibly more important is sharing the way forward. Parents can tell their children why they will be working more hours or set and talk about family goals to put more savings away or to pay off debts. The goal is always to show your children what action you are taking to make life more secure for them. If your family will be moving, get your children in on the planning. Make it an adventure if you can. Give them a chance to plan a little bit too. It will help the whole family to feel more in control.

Find Strength in your Family History: We know and tell our family stories. My dad has told my boys about his mother's victory garden. This year, my oldest has planted a garden of his own. My mother's family vacations as a child were simple: camping at a local park and swimming in the river every day with kids from the neighborhood. We can easily keep up the tradition at our own 'swimming hole'. My husband's grandfather owned a store with his brother during the depression. They lost it because they extended credit to families who needed food. It was something he never regretted doing, and he went on to live a long, full, joy-filled life. Grandpa Kelly's story has given us perspective, teaching us that situations change, jobs change, and the best we can do is to be as kind as we can. In the end, what matters is how we live, not where our paycheck comes from. So, tell your family's immigrant story, bring your children to visit the home where their grandparents grew up, visit older relatives and ask them to share their memories. It will give you context and perspective.

Set Goals and Stay Positive: Find ways to think positively about the future. Even though times are uncertain, focus on the things that are certain. Make family goals and work to keep them, even if the goals are simple. We will go fishing with Grandpa. We will be brave enough to go off the diving board. We will learn to fix your bike together. We will grow our own vegetables. We will volunteer every week at the food bank. We will help our elderly neighbor with odd jobs. The goals can be big or small, but setting them, working toward them, and meeting them can be a great way to build something for the future. Taking positive action is an important part of maintaining a positive outlook. It helps both parents and kids look at a problem and think, we can lick this.

Our basic view is this: God put us in this family for a reason. We have to find the strength to get through when times are tough -- together. That means being honest, making good choices, forming a plan, setting goals, and staying positive. Our family is the most important bond we have been given; we hope it is a source of love and understanding, even when our patience and endurance are being tested. And our family is only complete with every member.

So, we choose to share the load. We show our children they are valued when we share with them. Even when the news is not good at first. As parents, we can and should assure them that we will face life's challenges together. When we do, I truly believe there is nothing we can't accomplish.

- Midwest Mom

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Little Snow Perspective

I remember the snow when I was in first grade. It was the late 70's, and we lived in Buffalo Grove, Illinois (outside Chicago.) We got walloped with snow storm after snow storm.

I loved it.

There was so much snow that the city had to put red stakes in the snowbanks to show where the stop signs were. We walked to school on top of those snowbanks, looking down at passing cars.

After school, the neighborhood kids tunneled through the snow like eskimo squirrels. My dad helped us to make a slide in front of our house by scooting us down the snowbank on our snow-panted bottoms and then pouring a bucket or two of water down the indentation made by our rear ends. It was a fast slide.

We had snowball fights for the ages. Our snow forts were as impregnable as the Chateau d'If -- for no other reason than the eleven feet of standing snow on the ground.

What's amazing about my memories is that I don't remember people complaining about the snow. All I remember is consuming lots and lots of hot cocoa and Campbell's soup that winter.

That's why I laugh when I hear of the Federal Government shutting down because of a little snow. Granted, two feet of snow may seem like an awful lot... But, what do you expect when you elect a Midwesterner President of the United States? He was bound to bring a little weather in tow.

Here in the flatlands, we're enjoying our second day off from school this week. The boys are outside sledding with friends in the backyard. It's a well-earned bit of fun for them; they spent a half-hour this morning shoveling our front walk.

When they came inside after their "hard work", it was fun to hear them chatter to each other about how cold it was and how deep the snow was. "There's a TON of snow out there," my first-grader stated gravely as if I would be consumed by the blizzard were I to step foot outside.

As they settled in for their warm drinks, I tiptoed out with my ruler.

Six inches.

Still, they've fashioned some pretty swell snow forts out of that six inches...

But I wonder about my own recollections, now. And I wonder about my niece and nephew in Maryland imagining their way through 28 inches of the white stuff... What stories will they be able to tell?

- Midwest Mom

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Boundaries and the Blog as Confessional

I cannot help it.

Despite putting my writing 'out there' for public consumption, I cannot get over the fact that certain parts of my private life should remain private.

So, I've taken down my more recent efforts at autobiography.

Sorry to disappoint, but Midwest Moms was never supposed to be solely about me. It is a platform to for me to translate my parenting experience into a form that could help other parents. Putting my own story into narrative form serves an entirely different aim. And while I may continue that writing privately, I feel uncomfortable with making it available here.

My apologies to those friends who have been so encouraging. But sometimes second thoughts make sense. This is one of those cases.

- Julia