Tag Archives: parenting

Top 10 Life Lessons I Learned from Ramona Quimby

I am often asked about my favorite author.   Children’s author Beverly Clearly, creator of my beloved Ramona series, recently celebrated her 100th birthday, so I was reminded that hers were the first books I truly loved.    While I read everything she wrote–The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Ellen Tebbets, and Henry Huggins to name a few–it was Ramona Quimby and her family that taught me at and early age about family, friendships, and how the world works.   My Top 10 Life Lessons learned from Ramona Quimby:

10.    Bricks make great toys.        As a child of the 70s, I spent my early years wandering outside with my neighborhood friends finding things to do.    Ramona and her sensible neighborhood friend Howie did the same and discovered the game of Brick Factory.     This involved nothing more than using a big rock to crush bricks into dust.

  Ramona brick factory

 I loved this idea.    My friend, Andrea, and I tried this more than once, finding that our modern 70s bricks must have been less crushable than Ramona’s, so Brick Factory never lasted long for us.    But the idea of finding fun in nothing was still inspiring.

9.  Teachers don’t always like their students.   My second grade teacher hated me.   I think my confidence irritated her, and when it showed she was quick to remind me that I wasn’t so smart or creative or funny.    It was a relief to read about Ramona’s stern, humorless teacher whose nylons sagged around her ankles and had no patience for Ramona’s antics.

8.   Toothpaste won’t go back in the tube.   Impulsive Ramona, mesmerized by the unblemished sleekness of a new tube, squeezed the entire thing into the sink.    Only after it was too late did she realize that, obviously, it’s not going back in.   Ramona’s practical mother made her scoop the chalky mess into a plastic bag, and she was a required to dip her toothbrush in the used toothpaste while the rest of the family got a new tube.   As an 8 year old I think I glimpsed the metaphor, because the image of Ramona living with the sticky consequences of her 5 minutes of fun stuck with me.

7.  Working moms are worn out.    My mom was one of the few that I knew who worked full time, so I recognized Dorothy Quimby’s exhaustion.   For Ramona, dinners were late, cookies weren’t homemade, and costumes for the church program were held together by safety pins.   But exhausted or not, moms are always there when you need them the most.

Ramona's mom


6.   Parents miss the little details that are oh-so-big in an 8 year old’s life.    “Is my egg hardboiled?” Ramona asked more than once, excited she could participate in the crack-your-egg-on-your-head-at-the-lunch table fad.   Of course it wasn’t, and Ramona was literally left with egg on her face in front of her classmates.   Once again, it was familiar to me as a kid whose mom sometimes missed the details.    But it’s even more relatable now–just ask my daughter who opened her bag at the lunch table to find a half eaten apple, sandwich crusts, and cheese wrappers–yesterday’s lunch, decaying in her bag because this mom forgot to pack a new one.

5.  Curly hair is better than straight.    Plain old straight haired Ramona was always jealous of perfect Susan with her boing-boing curls.    There’s always someone who is prettier, or smarter, or who has better stuff.   It’s the way of the world.

4.   I can still love my awesome new sandals even if no one else does.   Yard Ape told Ramona her feet looked big in her back to school sandals.    She looked down, noted that her feet did look bigger, and took no offense.   Her feet had grown over the summer,  she decided, so this was fact, not insult.    Ramona didn’t let his words crush her soul, or the love of her sandals.

Ramona's sandals

3.   The dark is scary.    Ramona longed for, and was finally rewarded with, her own room.    But that beautiful, coveted room was terrifying after the sun went down.    Ramona’s paralyzing fear, her tightly tucked blankets, and her desperate run for her parents made my own dark and spooky bedroom closet a little less frightening.

2.   Families struggle.    Mr. Quimby lost his job, so Mrs. Quimby had to go back to work.    Ramona fretted as her dad grew surly and started smoking.

Ramona's dad

Her parents bickered over pancakes, and Ramona and Beezus whispered their late night worries of divorce.    And then life went on, arguments forgotten.   Reading about the tribulations of the Quimby family, from the perspective of a second grader, was like peeking through a neighbor’s shutters and seeing that sometimes their lives were hard too.

1.  Joy is in the little stuff.    A little white bag of gummy bears, swinging high enough to kick tree branches, stomping in rain puddles.

Ramona puddles

Ramona taught me to look for simple pleasures and treasures.    Ramona’s life was ordinary, her adventures never extending much past her neighborhood or school, but spending an afternoon with Ramona was as soothing as hot chocolate and a fuzzy blanket.     What a gift to write with such honesty, warmth and humor.    Happy 100th birthday to my favorite author, Beverly Cleary.



Let’s hear it for B+ Moms!

I first knew I was in trouble when I was only a few months pregnant.   “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” was my bible, and it helped me through endless hiccups, heartburn, and insomnia.   But that book also scared the daylights out of me.    A section in the book discussed nutrition, and the authors were all about making every calorie count.     But when they recommended that that I carry a vial of wheat germ in my purse for when I’m at a restaurant and there aren’t any whole grain dinner rolls…I knew that that I was never going to measure up.   It took me a long time to realize that maybe that’s OK.

So here’s to the B+ moms–you know who you are.   I recognize you at the grocery story, rearranging your cart to get your token bag of baby carrots and Greek yogurt to cover the stack of frozen pizzas and sugared cereals.   B+ moms buy good food, but we also balance that with a generous dose of Ramen and fruit snacks because sometimes it’s just easier.

B+ moms take their kids to the park and push them on the swings, fighting the urge to play Words with Friends while our kids build rock piles.   We know our kids need our attention, so we smile and nod at every pretty pebble. Sometimes I’ll grab a picture of that triumphant backwards climb to the top of the slide and we’ll put it on facebook, evidence of time spent outdoors with mom.   But I’m often relieved when park time is over and we can head home to righteously flip on netflix and heat up dinner.

There’s too much screen time at many B+ households.     Homework is done, bug collections completed, and permission slips are eventually signed–usually in lime green marker because regular pens are as scarce as homemade spaghetti sauce.     But then the TV goes on and our kids laugh at Joey and Chandler until one of the Friends pushes the TV14 guideline a little too far for even a B+ mom, and it’s back to the dreaded Disney Channel for the rest of the night.

The problem with being a B+ mom (or a B+ anything for that matter) is that we don’t share those regular days.   My facebook page is full of smiling, joyful, proud moments, so I’m as guilty as the rest.   I don’t think that anyone really wants to hear about how I snapped at my family about the dirty dishes piled in the sink, and then I plopped on the couch, ignored the half-folded laundry and ordered pizza.   We don’t usually talk about the mundane, or the times that I know that everyone else is having an instagram-worthy moment but me.

So rest assured B+ moms, you are not alone.  We all love our kids and are doing the best we can every day.  But I hope we can remember for every giggly Easter egg hunt or expertly carved pumpkin that makes Facebook, there are just as many families that almost throttle each other trying to put up the Christmas tree.     Luckily, our children leading B+ lives are a forgiving bunch, having learned that it’s possible to laugh about the big Christmas tree fight later, and that life is full of ho-hum, non-facebook worthy days sprinkled with random, healthy doses of joy.

my mom and me 1973
my mom and me 1973

And Happy Mother’s Day in Heaven to my mom, who was always a solid A in my book.

Don’t Blink

As a writer, I try to avoid clichés. But in parenting, and especially during graduation, clichés are everywhere:

“As one door closes, another opens…”

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life…”

“The future is in your hands…”

I feel like my own graduation, when I squirmed and sighed through clichéd speeches in that temperamental mortarboard and papery red gown, could have happened just a few years ago. Certainly not 24 years ago. I now understand why people embarrass themselves by trying to look and act young–we still feel that way. Those days of struggling through chemistry and Friday night football games feel like they just happened.

Friday night, I squirmed and sighed through another graduation ceremony, but this time as the tearful mom in the bleachers, and my oldest daughter was in the papery gown–in Winger purple. And while I tried to wrap my brain around what was happening, my head was full of clichés.

“They grow up so fast…”

“Before you know it she will be ready to leave the nest…”

“Don’t blink!”

Apparently I blinked, because I just brought home this wide eyed baby girl (7 pounds 10 ounces, 20 inches long), and now in what feels like the blink of an eye, I am watching this beautiful young woman collect her diploma, move her tassel, and toss her cap in the air.

Now I am left with another cliché: If only I could turn back the clock….

Of course I can’t, and even if I could I would never put her through some of those painful years again. But if there was a way to relive it all, I would do it in a heartbeat. Sometimes I would just take it all in, other times I would whisper in my ear (or hers) to calm the heck down because it’s all going to be OK.

If I could turn back the clock…

…I would relive those first days, when her daddy instinctively new that pressing her tiny head against his chest and gently bouncing up and down would soothe her to sleep anywhere.

…I would slow down time so I could watch her stretch her tiny arm up to that cornsilk tuft on top of her head and run her little fingers through her hair until she lulled herself to sleep.

…I would exhale through that moment when she woke up after the dreaded tonsillectomy, with her swollen tongue and blood crusted on the edges of her mouth, and I would laugh again as she exclaimed at the TV, “Little bear!” and gingerly sucked on popsicles in her hospital bed all afternoon.

…I would convince both of us that she was just fine at kindergarten, even though she clung to my hand every Tuesday, Thursday, and alternating Fridays until Mrs. Jackson looked down at her and said, “Good morning Abby” and she reluctantly let go of me and entered her classroom.

…I would have reassured her that she doesn’t have to answer all the questions that her second grade teacher can ask, and it’s OK to let someone else raise their hand.

…I would find a way to show that increasingly insecure adolescent not to lose her confidence, because all those fabulous things about her are the things that matter anyway.

…I would tell myself never to second guess the money we spent on vacations, because I will forever remember freezing at the Wisconsin Dells, marveling at the rocky mountains, gazing over Chicago at the top of the Navy Pier ferris wheel, and basking in the sun and the sunset over the gulf of Mexico.

…I would cheer even louder at those jump serves in her last competitive volleyball game, not only because she landed every one, but because they show that she ended her volleyball career with sportmanship, poise, and class.

…I would insist on even more nights that all six of us at eat together at the dinner table, loving how ridiculous and obnoxious we get in the way that only our family can.

…I would remind myself more often that our lives are so short, and the struggles that seemed huge at the time were fleeting and helped her become the pillar of strength that she is.

Time marches on, the cliché goes, and all we can do is look forward. And so I will try to worry less, trust more, and absorb every moment…without blinking ever again. Happy Graduation my baby girl. We are so proud.

A little bit of magic

I wish there were more magic in social work. I see it here and there…when a child really connects with an adult for the first time, or when alcohol treatment works the eighth time when it didn’t sink in after the first seven attempts. When the hopeless becomes hopeful.

Somewhere around my tenth year as a child protection social worker, I learned a skill that is as close to magic as I may ever get, and I use it in every area of my life. I tried it the first time with my middle daughter when she was just under two years old.

My kids have always been sensitive and emotional, and my Gracie is no exception. As a toddler she also developed the charming tendency to strip all of her clothes off when she was upset. She was our third child, so we thought we knew a little something about parenting by this time, but we had never dealt with angry nakedness before…at least not in a toddler.

One Saturday, we had friends visit and Gracie had a blast playing with their son, so much so that she missed her nap and was deliriously tired by the time they left early in the evening. Trying to wave goodbye dissolved into a full blown meltdown, and within minutes she was tugging at her little stretchy pants and diaper. I scooped her up and carried her to her room, telling her that our friends were leaving and it was time for bed. She was tiny but a fighter, so she got a few punches and kicks in with her spindly arms and legs. I laid her in her bed and sat in her room against the door so she couldn’t get out.

“I wanna go downstairs!” she wailed.

“I know Gracie, but it’s time for bed.”

“I wanna go downstairs!”

“I’m sorry, you can’t go downstairs.”

I also learned that day that Gracie has stamina, and for the next 40 minutes she nakedly raged around her room, throwing stuffed animals at the door, pulling at my shoulders, grabbing at the doorknob, all while screeching, “I wanna go downstairs!”

I tried everything I could think of. I tried to read her books, but she grabbed them out of my hand and threw them. I tried to distract her with toys, but she kicked them away. I was gentle, then stern. I ignored her for at least 10 of those 40 minutes, but the tantrum raged on.

“I wanna go downstairs!”

Finally, I remembered a session at a conference on validation, which is essentially the ability to communicate that the person’s thoughts and feelings are valid and legitimate. Sometimes validation can be as easy as repeating what a person feels without judgment. After 40 minutes of screaming I was ready to try anything.

“I wanna go downstairs!” she screeched with an intensity that had barely waned.

“Gracie wants to go downstairs,” I repeated.

She turned, barely three feet tall, regarded me, and sat. “I wanna go downstairs,” she whimpered.

“Yeah… Gracie wants to go downstairs.” And with that, my naked, exhausted daughter crawled into my lap and was asleep within 30 seconds.

Magic? It felt like it that day. Nothing else had worked, and she showed no sign of slowing down. But when I stopped telling her she couldn’t go downstairs and just focused on what she was trying to tell me, she stopped fighting.

So I started using the same approach at work. Most child protection clients are angry (understatement of the year), and we usually can’t get very far until we can get past the anger. So instead of arguing or justifying or rehashing the case, I let my clients vent. And then I say something like, “It makes sense that you’re mad.”

Through that lens of validation, I started seeing invalidation everywhere: “Don’t cry” “It’s not that bad” “What’s the big deal?” “Look at the bright side” “Don’t be scared” “At least you’re not…” Invalidation can be well intentioned or heartless, but anything that discounts a person’s feelings or gives the message that they shoudn’t feel that way is invalidation.

There is great power in having a positive attitude, but pushing away and discounting negative feelings isn’t the way to get there. Part of invalidation comes from our own discomfort in tolerating other people’s grief, anger or pain.

And so I have learned that trust grows when I can tolerate my clients’ (or my children’s, or my friends’) difficult emotions and not try to convince them that they shouldn’t feel that way. “Yep, this sucks,” I have said to teenagers. “Of course you’re upset,” to the mom who needs to return to inpatient treatment. It doesn’t change the situation, but it usually helps them move on. Then, depending on my role, I might give a gentle push toward looking at a situation differently or letting go.

Not exactly pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but it helps. The naked sleeping toddler in my lap was proof.