Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Budgeting Update: Post-Tax Refund

My dad remarked that my 4-digit refunds are like my interest-free forced savings account. I totally agree, and I'm okay with that. As much as I would love to be more disciplined, I just can't ever seem to keep my monthly expenses from increasing whenever my monthly income increases. At some point, I just have to accept my personal limitations, and still figure out how to make it work.

I put about 3/4 of my state refund in my actual savings account, and spent about 1/4. The girls and I love our new Wi-Fi Blue-Ray player. I also got myself some shoes, a new purse, and happily went grocery shopping for 3 weeks without minding the budget! The federal refund will go entirely to paying down my high-interest credit card. It won't completely pay it off, but I should be able to accomplish that by the end of 2012 and cross that item off my budget for good!  (Or until the next emergency, whichever comes first.)

I used to drive myself crazy, spending the $$ in my head about 15 different ways from the time of filing until it actually hit my bank account. Now I know, I'm going to do a little of everything; I'm going to save a little, spend a little, and pay down debt.

Of course, I wish I could get to the point of not having debt at all, but again, I've had to accept both who I am and what our circumstances are. The fact is, I'm a single parent that doesn't receive child support. The fact is, I live in one of the most expensive cities in the country.  I acknowledge that some of it is by choice, and some of it is not, but it is what it is.

So my non-expert method is in line, after all, with Suze Orman's: I stand in my truth. While I will most likely never have her recommended 8-month emergency savings, I'm also responsible enough to always pay my bills on time. When that high-interest credit card has a zero balance, I will celebrate by streaming something on our Blue-Ray...with a homemade cocktail.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Balancing Teen Communication

As I've mentioned, these past few weeks of parenting my 14-year-old have been rough. At the heart of the matter has been a struggle for effective communication. So I was thrilled when TSL asked me to read Teenage as a Second Language by Barbara R. Greenberg & Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder.

Admittedly, some of these things are so much easier said than done. While parents of teenagers have been at this a while, it really does feel like you're starting all over again at a certain point in their adolescence. I thought it would be at 13, but it turns out it really hits when they're high school freshmen.

Of course, when you step back and think about it, the authors make a lot of sense. This is a time of great change in our children's lives, so it stands to reason that they would change right along with it. They're a little anxious, too. They are overwhelmed with emotions and new ideas and homework and the idea of their futures as adults is scaring them just as much as it may be scaring the parents.

This combination of anxiety, fear and confusion can greatly hinder our ability to communicate effectively. I can understand it on an intellectual level, but getting my heart to understand is a different matter.

So the reminders in Teenage as a Second Language came at the perfect time. We'd spent so many days and weeks just talking about this one issue or not talking at all. I was finally able to let go. During our commute, I allowed all of us to just be again.

When we arrived home, Sylvia said, "wow, Mom, we actually just had a conversation."  At that point, we could have a real discussion about the issue. We were both able to check our emotions and just talk to each other, and more importantly, I think we both finally felt heard.

Teenage as a Second Language reminds parents that we can't force our teens to communicate when they're not in a good place for it. It's more effective to remind our teens that we're here for them, and let them come to us. The book incorporates a lot of do's and don'ts (though I could've done without the don'ts), and plenty of ideas for conversation starters that can help provoke longer answers than "fine."

The authors also remind us parents that our teenagers really do still care about what we have to say and how we feel about them. Just as we'd like different responses sometimes, it works both ways. The book includes many tools for to get both parents and teenagers to speak the same language.

I was given a complimentary review copy of this book, and all opinions expressed are entirely my own. I'm bookmarking the authors' Talking Teenage site, and subscribing to their blog.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Value of Independence

I was watching something where a child was transitioning from baby to toddler, and her mother cooed that her baby was walking "all by yourself!" We praise these literal and figurative baby steps in life. Some mothers fret that their child isn't keeping up with the Joneses, while the Jones mother brags constantly about her advanced child that can read all by herself.

Fast forward 20 years, and that mother that bragged about her child's independence is now fretting: "when are you going to get married? How come you're all by yourself?"

It may not always be that obvious, but if there's one thing that Eric Klinenberg's interviewees have in common, they've all had to answer at one time or another some form of that question. Those answers, and much more, are addressed in Klinenberg's book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

What I found most surprising was how this book came about. Klinenberg is married. He previously wrote about the alarming number of Chicago residents that died alone during a heat wave. He ended up writing Going Solo about the variety of ways that singletons (his term for those that live alone) live...and some who die alone. He surprised himself by how many singletons are content with their lives just as they are; some who see themselves as singletons for the long term, and some who are open to changing that status.

Klinenberg addresses the issue of how our culture has progressed into this life of independence that really, we've been trained for...from those first words of praise of standing and walking all by ourselves.

Parents spend all their focus on their children's education, getting them into a good college, have a fabulous career, and then, as their grown children become a certain age, the message changes.  "All By Myself" is the title of a sad, lonely song instead of an accomplishment to be cherished.

That valued independence becomes dubious. If you're attuned to it, as I am, you can see the messages everywhere. The harmless jokes that "no wonder so-and-so's not married," the complete frenzy over a royal wedding, the urging from some authors to just settle already.

We bemoan the rate of divorce, yet still try to rush couples down the aisle. If they're really not ready or willing to make that commitment, they most likely will end up divorced. 

Singletons and single parents are not going away. The numbers are clear. Nuclear families are no longer the majority of American households.  One in seven American adults live alone. Approximately 13 million households are single parent families. And most Americans these days have lived alone at some point in their lives.

When we value independence, we should not be surprised when individuals value going solo.

I am proud to be participating in TLC's Book Tour on Going Solo. I was given a complimentary copy of the book, and all opinions expressed in this post are my own. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life Well Lived: Organizing Get Togethers

Question: What is your best tip for hosting a gathering, get-together or party that is enjoyable and stress-free for both the host and guests?

At the end of my leadership program last year, I took on the unofficial title of Social Committee Co-Chair for our class. I'd loved spending time with this particular group of people, and didn't want our relationships to end just because our program had, so my co-chair and I took it upon ourselves to put together social gatherings to keep our class connected.

Being the co-chairs, of course, the first thing was finding dates and times that would work for us. We would alternate between Happy Hours and weekday lunches, and would switch the venue each time (a la "floating crap game" style) to keep it interesting (and affordable) for us.

Once we'd chosen the date and venue, we'd send an email out to the group. Some people would respond immediately, and some never did, but we were all right with it. We understood from the onset that no one had any further obligation to the group, and that we are all busy people.

I've never understood why people get so hurt or offended if someone doesn't RSVP right away...or at all. I assume that everyone is busy and the invitation can easily get lost (electronic or snail mail) without ill intention. I'm quite sure I've had it happen to me more than once as well. I'm opening my mail (or checking my email) while having a conversation with my daughter. I look at the date and time, but of course, have no idea if I'm busy then or not. There's an 80% chance that I'll be distracted by a hungry child (or cat) or phone call or something shiny before I get to checking my calendar to see if I'm available. Then about 100 other things happen before I remember that I got invited to something in the first place! It's no reflection on the sender, it's just what happens.

I expect the last-minute cancellations and the no-shows. If the no-show is someone that I usually would hear from, I'll be concerned enough to send a "we missed you" email just to check on their well-being, but certainly not to shame them for not coming. Generally, I just try to enjoy the company of those that were able to make it. I'm sure it helps that we pick places where it doesn't really matter how many of us there are, and don't make reservations because it's so casual. The worst that can happen is the waitstaff will have to add more chairs to accommodate a larger group, and they never seem to mind the extra business!

So all of that to say that my tip is: remember that the intention is to enjoy the company! Food might spill, a waiter might be slow, or someone may show up an hour late. Social gatherings are supposed to be fun. And if they cause more stress than they're worth, it might be time to retire from hosting.

Visit BlogHer for more tips and enter the sweepstakes to win a Kindle Fire.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Self-LoVe Day

A few years back, there was a blogger carnival, promoting Valentine's Day as Self-Love Day. I've been celebrating it that way ever since.

It's so easy to be hard on ourselves, and it never quite feels right to say what we love about ourselves. In fact, I was telling Sylvia about this a few days ago, and her immediate reaction was that it was conceited. It's not conceited, I told her, to say that we like certain things about ourselves. It doesn't mean we think we're perfect, or that we're superior, just that we do have our good qualities.

So without further disclaimers, here are a few things I like about me:

I can prioritize effectively.Yes, I actually think I have a pretty good balance in my life. I make time for my friends, my family, and myself. At work, I know what has to be done first, and if I don't, I know how to find out. I have accepted that there are never enough hours in the day, and I work with what I have so that every day feels productive.

I'm a fast learner. I'm never the smartest person in the room, but I can quickly assess the big picture and enhance it. I can learn in any environment, educationally or on the job. I take direction well, and I usually can add something new to the process that improves it.

I surround myself with great people. I have amazing friends that make me a better person.

I'm adventurous. I'm never going to climb a mountain - not that kind of adventure - but I don't back down from opportunities that come my way. I've been a failure in some and have looked like an idiot more times than I'd like to remember, but I remain proud of myself for not being afraid to try.

I'm good at being alone. I've always been good at being alone. I would spend hours in my room by myself, making up my own stories, singing along to my favorite Broadway tunes, reading, thinking. That's never changed.

I hope everyone will take a moment today to remember the best things about ourselves. Happy Self-Love Day!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Finding Center

So we're doing better now.

One more argument finally led to some disclosures, and it became clear that we needed some one-on-one time together.

It's so much easier when quality time happens organically, but given our states of mind lately, that wasn't happening. So I found a couple of hours where it could just be the two of us, and we could talk.

We share a love of Starbucks so we started there. It was a lovely day, and we picked a spot outside to bask in the sun, and took advantage of the peaceful setting for a civilized conversation. We were able to speak from our hearts and make a few tiny steps in a new direction.

With the air cleared, we did some window shopping and just talked about nothing. We made each other laugh, and we both felt like ourselves again; felt like us again.

I was reminded that this time is a marathon; there will continue to be ups and downs, but, as they say in one of my favorite songs from Avenue Q, "everything in life is only for now."

I'll enjoy this upswing for as long as it lasts, and try and find some reserves in my energy for the next challenge.

For a few years now, I've enjoyed some respite from the constant exhaustion that came with having little ones: running alongside them, trying to clear every hint of danger from their paths. This journey of having teens is a different kind of exhaustion. I can't give guidance by merely swooping them up and averting it for them, but to hope that the tools I've given them are enough that they can avert the dangers themselves...while still maintaining enough parental control to step in when necessary. And most of all, understanding the difference.

In the past few weeks, I have questioned every parental choice I've made throughout her life. And I hate playing coulda, woulda, shoulda. I wonder about everyone I see, what was their upbringing like? How much credit do their parents deserve for how happy or unhappy they are with their lives today?

I'm sure if I asked a dozen, I'd get as many different answers.

So back to basking in the sun for what there is to appreciate about today. A little laughter, a moment of us, and lots more coffee.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pre-Empty Nest Syndrome

Our relationship is changing. It was bound to happen, but I'd held onto this thread of denial that it wouldn't. That we could somehow survive the teen years without growing pains. That I would somehow find that perfect balance of pulling away, yet remaining close enough.

Now that the panic has subsided, and new strategies formed, I find myself in mourning, a feeling I foolishly thought would not happen to me.

I miss her. I miss being able to easily laugh with her, relax with her, and the exchange of thoughts, ideas and feelings I came to expect with her.

I hate how typical we've become. She with her buzzing cell phone and ever-present headphones dangling from her ears. Me with my lecturing tone and constantly saying "no" and the uncomfortable silences. We are more often guarded with each other than we are ourselves. We are reaching out to others rather than coming to each other. We are more often dwelling on the faults we find in each other than enjoying each other's company.

I don't wish she was little again, but I do wish we could rush through this stage. I find myself clinging to my own parents in this time, so grateful to have them here, so guilty for what I put them through when I was her age.

I'm sure we'll find our way back to each other again, and there are moments here and there that feel like the "us" that I cherish, and I hold those as tight as I can to last me until the next one. They make me believe that we will once again have what we had, what I have again with my own mom. I know it will get better. But, like Artie in Glee, I just want it to be better. Now.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Balancing as the Ground Keeps Shifting

The week before last, I was in sheer panic mode. I learned long ago that I have no control over another human being. That knowledge as a mother left me feeling helpless.

When they're younger, it's easier to guide them; to implement consequences and/or rewards to steer them in the right direction. As they get older, I want to guide, but let them find their desired destination. Without knowing where they're going, the concept of guidance gets more challenging. Nor do I want their path too narrow. I want to allow enough room for them to still explore, to remain open to other possibilities.

Of course, as the parent in this relationship, it's up to me to draw the boundaries, provide the guidance, and well, be the parent, and my 14 years of parenting thus far gave me no sense of confidence to feel like I knew what to do. 

While there's some comfort in knowing that I'm not the only parent that has struggled with this, there didn't seem to be a magic potion or even a method that could guarantee results. And, of course, even more controversy about any methodologies that may exist. In the end, as usual, I was left to my own gut, my own knowledge of both myself and my children, to find something that may or may not work for us.

Thankfully, I'm not completely alone in this. I've reached out to friends and family, and most importantly, have the support of my parents to help me implement my new strategy.

My end goal is to broaden her path (and yes, I too find this metaphor tiresome, but at the same time, am too tired to find a new one), even as she's done her level best to narrow it. To keep her from making life-altering choices because I know she's too young to understand all of the consequences of her actions right now.

Now that I've gotten a strategy in place, my panic has subsided, and I can focus on being there for her as she is right now. I understand now how parents and their (usually teenaged) children get caught up in this endless, exhausting cycle of lectures and silence because that's been us for the last two weeks. I knew she couldn't really hear me, but I couldn't stop myself from trying to get her to listen. I knew she couldn't give me thoughtful, coherent answers because she didn't understand herself, but I couldn't help myself from yearning and pleading with her to help me help her.

I still don't have confidence that this new strategy will guarantee results. To believe that would be foolish indeed. But at least it's something to try. At least it's something that gives me the guidance I need to focus both of us to that end goal. I'm no longer waking up with that tight feeling in my chest of hopelessness. I feel like myself again, and am ready to try, try again.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

14 is (mostly) Not Fun

Right now, it isn't hard to write because life is wonderful. Right now, it's hard to write because I have a 14-year-old daughter.

She's moody, she's wonderful, she wants me close, she wants me far far away, she shares with me stuff I couldn't care less about, and I wonder what she's not sharing with me. She wants to talk, but she doesn't want to listen. She thanks me, but doesn't want what I've offered. She's funny and fun...until she isn't.

And when I'm not living in the moment with her, I'm thinking about every moment we've had. Was I too nice or too strict? Have I been riding her too hard or not hard enough? I hear myself say things over and over, but I don't think she's heard a word I've said.

I don't expect perfection, but the lack of progress scares me. But am I being too impatient? Will it get through the 500th time or will it never get through?

I know she'll learn best from her mistakes, but I don't want her mistakes to be insurmountable, and I can't find the line. I try to give her some space, but not too much. I try to allow her some independence, but remain close by. And I have to jump in sometimes. I just have to.

Because I'm the parent. Because she's my child. Because she's not a grown up yet, and her brain won't be fully-developed for another 11 years.

But then, of course, I question myself. Did I jump in too soon? Would she have figured it out on her own had I given her the opportunity? Did I undermine her ability to grow, or did I do the right thing? And there's simply not enough distance from each instance to gain any perspective.

How did my mother survive this? How does anybody?

I guess I'll know in 5, 10, 20 years.