Being Good

Let me ask you a question, and please mull this over for a minute. Do you consider yourself to be a good person? I mean, I know you probably aren’t a conniving super-villain, petting your white fluffy cat in a black armchair somewhere, but are you good?

What is it that makes a person “good”? Are these some adjectives that spring to mind? Kind, generous, helpful, honest, selfless, ethical, thoughtful, lovely, or virtuous? And be honest, would you pick any of those to describe yourself?

I guess we all range on the goodness scale somewhere between Gandhi and Hitler. Definitely not saintly, but not certifiably evil either. If I had to put myself under the microscope, I would give “me” a pretty middling score on the scale. I am definitely not bad, but I am also not as good as I could be.

Okay, I’m kind – in that I’m mostly nice, with a few moments of cringe-worthy meanness thrown in. I am honest, mostly because I’m terrible at lying – but there are more layers to being truthful than I care to go into here. The mix that makes up me could use a good dash of generosity and thoughtfulness. For most of my life, it’s not that I’ve meant actively to be not nice to other people, I was just quite self-absorbed, as many of us really are. Being self-absorbed isn’t about being highly conceited or mean-spirited, it just means consistently thinking of how things affect you and not how they affect others. Getting ourselves out of that me, me, me habit is what makes us better people all around, but it can be a struggle.

Becoming a mother knocked a lot of that self-absorption out of me. It’s kind of impossible to continue thinking only of yourself when the most important person in your life is no longer you. My son’s cancer diagnosis quietly removed most of the selfishness that remained. (Note, I didn’t say all.)

The road through treatment revealed to me the innate goodness of so many people I know – the beauty of whom just put me to shame, with my small, self-involved life. Friends and family members both rose brilliantly to the occasion, giving of their time, their thoughts, their attention and their love. And their food. And their Tupperware. Which I’ve never returned. Apologies!

I started thinking about this the other day as I was stuck in hospital with my son, again. (Don’t worry, all is well.) My dear friend, S., came to visit us. S. the Self-Less and Lovely. More than any other friend, she makes it her mission to just help me. She sends me texts and messages – she comes by to visit, she brings coffee and treats. Her own life is busy and far from easy, she and her family have faced down many, many hard times together. She is a wife and mom to two gorgeous kids, she works as a Special-Ed teacher (saintly, yes?), she is a whirlwind of energetic busy-ness. She is the epitome of thoughtful. Last week, I got teary-eyed hearing the story of the latest challenges she has faced with her family. And later on, I thought, What’s my excuse?

We’ve all got our reasons why we can’t do the things we say we would like to. I’m busy, I can’t afford it, I don’t have time, I’ll do it later.

In these first weeks of January, we are making and breaking resolutions of some sort – but most of them have to do with self-improvement. Or what we perceive as self-improvement – dieting and exercise, anyone? It’s occurred to me that maybe I need to expand my horizons a bit.

Maybe my resolutions have to be not about what I can do for myself but about what I can do for others. Maybe I can do good.

That’s why I’m starting A Deed a Day. Today. I want to do something every day (or almost every, come on, nobody’s perfect) that is good. I define good deeds as things I can do to help others, things I can do to help the Earth, and things I can do to be a better person. (Not a better-looking person)

I’d love for you to join me. Let me know your good deeds. Give me some ideas for mine! Let’s see if we can be as good as we could.

A Deed a Day: #1 TerraCycle

So here is Deed #1. This one is a bit of a cheat since I’ve actually already done it – but I want to support this amazing company and I figure spreading the word about them is a thing worth doing.

They are called TerraCycle. They are an American company that has recently branched out into Canada. (and other countries!) What they do, essentially, is try to eliminate waste by recycling or re-purposing garbage that cannot be traditionally recycled.

All you have to do is sign up with the company, join a “brigade” and get ready to send them your household waste. I am a member of the coffee bag and cereal bag brigades – so I collect these things until I have a boxful, print off a free shipping label from their website, and then send them the materials.  They then make these things into other things like park benches and tote bags. The best part is that you can collect points for each shipment you send, and you can use these points to buy various charity gifts – like a Teach a Teen to Cook program for impacted youth, or One Water Container for a vulnerable family.

It is an all around win, win, win. I get to be a do-gooder, the company gets materials to make its products, and people in need receive thoughtful donations. And we stop all that packaging from going to landfill. Love it!

The Battle of the Mums Continues

If you had asked me if I wanted kids, at the age of 19, the answer would have been a big hell no. By 25, it had morphed to a yes, but in the far future. By 30, I was as mentally prepared as I’d ever be, and by 33 I’d given birth to my only child. (Who is quite unbelievably now 5.)

At NO time during any of those years would I have said that I wanted to be a stay-at-home mum. A SAHM. Ugh. Bad job title, no interest, no thank you. And yet, here I am, tapping away at my “mom blog”, folding little pants whilst stirring a bubbling pot on the stove. Sometimes the train of your life’s plans gets pretty thoroughly derailed, or at least shunted off onto a siding for a good long while. So no, I didn’t set out to be doing this with my days, but I accept and embrace with all the grace I can muster that this is where I am.

In my neck of the woods, we SAHMs or SAHDs (Stay-at-home-dads? That’s an acronym-fail) are a bit of a rare breed. I live in a neighbourhood where there are a lot of mums on mat-leave pushing strollers and a lot of caregivers ferrying little ones to school. Of my circle of friends, only a few don’t work “outside of the home”, the majority are employed full-time, with the remainder working either part-time or self-employed and working from home. There is a huge range in what these people have chosen to do for childcare: nannies, daycare, Montessori, part-time caregivers, family members stepping in for school pick-ups and drop-offs, and the list goes on.

Is it possible to choose one of these solutions and say, “This is, without doubt, the best possible situation for all young children.”? Obviously not. Seems to me that the important thing is that we all make the best choices that we can for ourselves and our individual families, and try not to be overly judgmental of the choices of others. Ah, you say, but we are humanswe LOVE being judgmental of the choices of others!

In the battle of the SAHMs vs. working mums, I hear – or see coming across my news-feed – a lot of polarized opinions. The working mums faction opines, “I do what you do and hold down a full-time job.” And the SAHMs lash back with the passive-aggressive guilt, “Well, as long as you’re happy to let someone else raise your child, you can selfishly go to work whilst I toil at home.” Unbelievable, yet true.

A friend posted this article today, whose author tells stay-at-home moms to “stop pretending you’re better” and slates a SAHM for writing about her conflicted emotions in responding to the dreaded what-do-you-do-all-day question. When I read the first article, yeah, I felt riled. Stop pretending you’re better! How terribly blunt and insulting. I am insulted on behalf of stay-at-home mums everywhere!

Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself of two things. First, this woman’s job is to write snappy copy for the country’s biggest newspaper, it isn’t about being all squishy with her feelings. Second, despite that, the article is coming from an emotional place – and that place is hurt. The author felt judged and criticized by some SAHMs she knows who fired some unthinking questions her way, and by one in particular who actually said this, “You always arrive so late for the group violin lesson, you make the rest of us moms look good!”

Feeling judged isn’t a comfy place to be – even if the judgment is completely unintentional. I’ve been on the receiving end of a fair few well-meaning but kinda hurtful comments like, “Oh, you’re a stay-at-home mum, fun!” (Belittling) “So what are you doing with all your free time these days?” (Guilt-inducing) and my personal favourite, “You’re so lucky that you are able to do that.”

Lucky. Such an overused word that indicates that all that happens to us is a matter of random chance. As it happens, random chance has been on my side. In fact, I’m one of the luckiest people I know.

I live in a great house in a great neighbourhood in a great city (crack-smoking mayor aside) in a great country.

I have a loving family and wonderful friends.

I don’t know hunger.

I turn on the tap and drink clean, potable water.

I’m in good health – cancer hasn’t caught me yet – and my son is alive and thriving.

I am spared the truly thankless drudgery that is the lot of the majority of women in the world.

I’m a lucky, lucky middle-class North American woman who owns the supreme privilege of even entering into this ridiculous mom on mom debate.

But when these people tell me that I’m lucky, they’re not referring to all of these things that make me really fortunate. They’re referring to our household income, and probably think we’re rolling in it. We do fine. We don’t buy a lot of stuff. We get a lot of support from both sets of our parents.

A lot of families I know could survive on one income, if they chose to do so. It just hasn’t been their choice, and I don’t judge them for that, as I hope they don’t judge me for mine.

Our choice is the one we made for our family, and it came out of a place of desperate need. My son needed me, probably more than any child will ever need a parent, his very survival depended on my presence. And although that is in the past, all of his ongoing health stuff means that I spend whole weeks at home with him, caring for him. LITERALLY a stay-at-home-mum.

Yesterday at Bean’s school the heat had been turned off all night, and his classroom was 4 degrees in the morning. His teacher recommended taking the kids home for the morning, if possible. So he and I returned to the house together.

We spent the morning playing Uno and making paper snowflakes. I think we can all agree, both jobbed and job-less moms, that it was a pretty lucky place to be.

Ads and Kids

Like all the other neglected kids of the 70’s, I grew up glued to the TV for Saturday morning cartoons, getting my impressionable little brain blasted with ads for toys, sugary cereal and candy, in between episodes of The Smurfs and Menudo videos.

The jingles of my childhood are still rolling around in said brain, while other, much more important information consistently gets deleted. It’s highly irritating to remember all the words to the Big Red song and yet have difficulty committing a new phone number to memory.

Advertising is powerful stuff. The word on the street is that more progressive countries like Norway and Sweden have banned advertising to children altogether. Kudos, to you, Scandinavians, for recognizing that children have no filter when it comes to ads. They take at absolute face-value what they are being told on the screen, and at the tender age of 4 or 5, haven’t yet learned to blur out the ads that fly at them at all times.

This is becoming obvious with my Bean, more on this in a moment, but first let me revisit a childhood event which proves this point.

When I was about 8 years old, and my younger sister 3, we kept seeing a TV commercial for a ride-on toy called “Inchworm”. (This could be the one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2zUrnmEokc) At around the 9 second mark, you will observe a curly-haired girl who looked a little bit like my sib. “That’s me!,” my sister insisted.

Awww, isn’t that cute, we all said. She thinks she’s in the commercial. And next, yup, you guessed it, a request to obtain an Inchworm of her very own. I’m not sure if we were actually at the toy store within the hour, that’s how 8-year-old me remembers it, but at some point immediately after, we did, in fact, have an Inchworm lurking in the garage. As ride-on toys go, it was totally inferior to a tricycle or Big Wheel, and was soon gathering dust, as my sister preferred to ride a vehicle that actually went somewhere. (This guy’s review on Amazon sums it up nicely.)

The moral of the story is that companies shouldn’t be allowed to market their crap toys to children, and, obviously, parents should turn a deaf ear to their kids’ repeated pleas for this or that shiny gadget.

I’ve been learning of late how hard it is to just say no when your kid really, really wants you to say yes. My son will beg with the relentlessness of the tide beating against a rocky shore. He will not stop, ever, until the coveted thing is in his possession. And that may just be a thing he decided he wanted of his own volition, not a thing that some marketer on TV told him he must want. 

We don’t actually have “TV” in the conventional sense. Bean watches DVD’s, movies, and episodes of things on Netflix.  This helps limit his exposure to loud, seizure-inducing commercials that turn him into a crazed animal of consumption. When he was little, he didn’t understand what commercials were, and so, when he happened to see them would try to make sense of how they fit into the story-line of the show he was watching. Trying to explain what ads are to a 3-year-old makes you realize how messed up our culture is. Well honey, people make things and they want us to buy them, so they use pictures to tell us how amazing the thing is. But mostly they are lies, all lies, and you should learn to ignore them.

Bean recently revealed to me what an absorbent little sponge he is at the family cottage. When we (the grown-ups), want some quiet time, we park him in front of the telly for an hour, usually watching a DVD. Then the DVD player died, so we scrolled around the channels and found very little in the way of children’s programming – so settled on a channel that plays retro cartoons all the time. Perfect! I thought. Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs on tap.

After a few cottage TV sessions, one evening he interrupted my wine-drinking with a declaration that he had seen a toy on TV that he had to have. Now. It was called a “Sea Pad” he said. It was a wondrous item that you could use in the car and take with you places, he said. On your bike, on a plane! It could also be a pillow! So many uses for this incredible toy. He asked me to Google it and figure out where we could get one, stat.

Further investigation revealed that they are actually called “Seat Pets.” The commercial for it is a terrible, low-budget affair that is over TWO minutes long. Two minutes is all it takes to fully brain-wash a child. Studies have been done. Here is a special gem:

And, hey, mom and dad, ever heard this, “Are we there yet?!” That’s one question you’ll never get when kids ride with Seat Pets! 

Bean found that last bit particularly compelling. He believed that all of his car-ride boredom was now a thing of the past, but only if we could get our hands on a Seat Pet. The only way out of it was to make non-committal remarks about how we might find one… one day… Thankfully, without further exposure he has forgotten all about Seat Pets.

Now that summer is over, we are no longer doing unchaperoned TV sessions, which is probably a good thing, as the other day in the kitchen he piped up with, Have you ever heard of Herbal Magic? It’s a great product that you can use to lose weight and be healthy!

Ugh, the pristine landscape of my child’s mind is now littered with Herbal Magic and Seat Pets and it’s all my fault! Obviously, the only solution is to move to Norway.

(Check out the ad for Seat Pets)

Orange Nail Polish

My kiddo has been sporting orange nail polish off and on for the last couple of weeks. The reactions of the general public have ranged from: meh, to how cute, to downright horror.

Bean’s likes and interests are pretty firmly in the “boys” camp. Spider-Man, other super-heroes, blowing things up with explosive accompanying noises, Star Wars, pirates. He is covered in bruises from leaping off of furniture in high-speed reenactments of Kung-Fu Panda scenes. You get the picture. Playing Calico Critters with him has always inwardly annoyed me because he wants things to blow up and then flies the critters away on jet-packs. And I just want the kitties to sit down and have a nice piece of toast and marmalade. I don’t even know how he learned about jet-packs.

However, I have never ever said to him, “That’s a boy’s game.” or “Only girls wear dresses.” I have tried (key word, tried) not to impose on him the strict gender-divide rules that society at large seems to love. If he wants to put on a sparkly Tinkerbell dress at the play centre, so be it. He likes doing artsy, creative things with his hands, and convinced his Daddy to first learn, then teach him, how to knit. He is making a purple scarf. (Note that he asked Daddy to teach him because he knows that Mum would be completely crap at it.)

A little while ago, he began asking me if he could paint his nails. Yeah, I hesitated.

First off, I don’t put anything chemical-ish on his little body, so it would have to be one of the “natural” brands. I knew they sold it at our local toy store. And secondly… I realized I was having a hard time with it because there was a very small voice in my head, murmuring, Boys don’t wear nail polish. After much coaxing on his part and a little inner debate on my part, I finally told the voice to stuff it and took him to the toy store. He picked out a lustrous, fluorescent orange. We went straight home to apply it and he insisted on doing fingers and toes himself. He was thrilled with the results. Everywhere we went for a couple of days, he showed off his digits to anyone who seemed remotely interested. (And to many people who clearly weren’t.)

I’m thankful that he was oblivious to the variety of responses from friends, strangers and neighbours. Friends thought it was cool. Because our friends are cool. Strangers thought it was weird. Oh well. And our elderly, super-conservative Portuguese-Canadian neighbour didn’t love it. He is a kindly man, but he said, “Boys don’t wear nail polish” twice in one conversation, all the while shaking his head and eyeing me with a kind of bemused smile on his face. I like him and he’s old and hard-of-hearing, so I refrained from giving him a lecture about gender equality, but just gave him an awkward grin and said, “Yes, they do.”

Okay, I know it’s not exactly revolutionary, but a little side-step outside the bounds of our society’s norms is, to my mind, a step in the right direction. If we all just consistently accepted the status quo, well ladies, you know where we would be. It’s because of the intrepid spirits before us who chose to be different, that we can vote, work, get a buzz-cut, READ, own property, and get married or not, as we choose.

There was once a time in our culture when people said, “Girls don’t wear pants.” Hell, my own mother had to wear skirts to high school in the 60’s. Had to. 

Right now, while he is still only 5, I can’t predict who my son will be or what he will like or who he will love when he is older. I only know that it is my job, (yes, I looked it up, it’s in the job description) to love him for who he is. To protect him from criticism. To cherish the fact that he is my beautiful child, and to make him feel respected for the choices he makes.

And right now, my kid chooses to express his creativity and artistic nature through a bold use of colour that he thinks, (and I agree) looks quite awesome on his little hands.

So when the quiet voice in our heads starts saying, “Girls don’t…” or “Boys don’t…”, well, you know what to do.