Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Adventures in Real Parenting: Into the Blue Again After The Money's Gone

Chloe is trying to figure out her next ten years.

I'm listening and offering guidance where it's appropriate and comfortable.  I've pride myself on not being a helicopter mom or, when Chloe was dancing, one of those stage mothers who referred to their daughters in tandem.  "We have rehearsals...."  Had I been dancing and performing then 'we' would have been correct.  Since my role was primarily to drive the car, pay the bills, pick up the tights at Center Stage and volunteer usher at performances, saying 'we' had rehearsals would have made me feel ridiculous.  And the sound of Chloe's eyes rolling in teenage disdain would have left me deaf.

And let us not forget - I am the founder of the school commonly referred to around here as Parenting by Benign Neglect.

One thing my kids have always known is that I've got their back, but they have to let me know when they want me to step in.  I don't need to know everything (speculating is more fun most of the time anyway) and if I make all their decisions, what will they gain?  As painful and frustrating as it may be, making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process.

So Chloe and I spent a few hours together in the car the other day and she discussed her future.  Where she might go to grad school (!), summer school at Cambridge (!!!), career options, intern ideas, the general uncertainty of any job market and how to weigh your passions against your desired lifestyle in the context of the way the world works and the economy.

As we chatted, I had a tiny epiphany.  I'm writing now.  I wrote when I was a kid, a teen and a young adult.  It never occurred to me to major in creative writing or English while in school.  A career in writing never crossed my mind.  Even though I loved to write, I would have felt ridiculous calling myself a writer.

I didn't seek out other writers or anyone who could have guided me in that regard.  My parents thought I had two options - nurse or teacher.  I rejected both to get a degree in French because I was good at languages and I liked pastry.

I had no idea what I'd do after I earned that degree. I had no plan or vision.  I just knew I'd graduate from I.U. and get a job.  My though process stopped right there.

I fell into association management because I liked the International College of Surgeons better than the insurance company that jerked me around during the interview process.  Et voila!  Career path chosen with no more consideration than I might have applied to choosing a pair of pants or which drink to go with my Happy Meal.

My career wasn't bad.  My limited ambition allowed me to go from a secretarial job to being part of the leadership team of the AARP Illinois State Office. That was significant.  I eventually ended up running small organizations.  I had a fancy title:  Executive Director, but was underpaid.  I SUCK at negotiating my salary.

Twenty years later, I have nothing to show for it.  No savings or retirement (I also SUCKED at negotiating benefits, opting to keep long-term staff instead of firing them so that I could make more money.)  Now the skills I honed are more liability than asset.  I'm told I'm overqualified for the jobs that are available.

So I was thinking, if it had occurred to me to write, would I have talked myself out of it by using the same unidealistic and unromantic arguments employed by my parents when they tried to convince me to just go study nursing and know that I'd have a secure job for the rest of my miserable life?

Because, I assure you, you would not want me as your nurse.  The first time you moaned in pain, I'd click my tongue and sigh at you and tell you how I had three babies with not even the teenist tiniest amount of pain medication so stop your groaning already!  You barf?  I barf.  Unless I'm related to you in which case I grab a bucket and insist in my most stringent and least patient hiss that you better not miss that bucket.  Shots?  Here's the hypodermic, do it yourself.  I'd probably be just fine taking your blood pressure and weighing you, even commiserating with you when you've put on a pound or two, assisting by subtracting four pounds for your clothes because when it comes to weight issues, I feel your pain.

Just don't tell me you have a headache.  I'll diagnose you with a brain tumor before you've had a chance to describe the other symptoms that clearly point to a sinus infection.

Oh, and whatever you do, don't tell me about the color of your snots.  I once had an AARP volunteer blow her nose into a hanky and then proceed to show it to me. "Would you look at that?"  she growled.  She was a growly type. Jowly, too.

For some still unexplained reason, I did.  I looked.  I gagged.  I still have nightmares about it.  Not even the photos of WWI wounded soldiers that I looked at last night have banished that yellow green gelatinous vision from my mind.

Wait. I think I'm a writer?  

But really - what if?  What if?  What if?

It's the question with which we can make ourselves slowly and yet profoundly mad.

I'd like to think that I wouldn't have talked myself out of writing. Oh sure, I might have said, "You'll always be broke."  or "Money will always be a struggle."  or "What if you never get published?"  or "What if you don't have any talent?"  or "What if you turn 45 and you've done all this work and you find that you have nothing to show for it?"


And so, I could have done what I might have been good at, what would have undoubtedly given me a different set of life experiences, what might have even proven to be a wise career choice because it turned out that I was successful in it.

It's something we'll never know, but after I thought all this, I thought I should share it with Chloe.  "Just think things through, weigh your priorities, consider your passions.  Think about how if you want to do something that isn't going to pay a lot, how you can set your life up now so you won't be saddled with debt, try to think like an entrepreneur because depending on others for a job is sketchy.  But don't talk yourself out of anything or into anything based on fear.  Fear is the worst possible reason to do or not do anything."

Movie script trite, I know.  But it doesn't make the idea any less true or valuable.

I read this post and the referenced essay by Laura Maylene Walter and thought "So there's the other side of this issue."  Because as she describes, Laura had success at a young age and has spent the following years building on that.  The trouble is, early success is no guarantee for future success either.

So how do I advise my child in any meaningful way?  I mean, if she's asking for advice because heaven forbid I offer any unsolicited words of wisdom.

Well, it just so happens that I turn into my mother-in-law.  She died in 1992 before the internet became a household item, but I like to think of her having evolved her old habit of keeping stacks and stacks of newspapers from which she would tear relevant articles.  Each of her children had their pile of articles that she'd selected especially for them.  When we visited her, she'd get hand MathMan's pile to him and say something like,"Here, Douglas.  I'm sure you'll find something useful in this."

Had she lived longer, I can imagine her forwarding emails of articles from education websites or Huffington Post, librarian news, The Rumpus or The Chicago Tribune.

Yesterday I sent Chloe links of two very different job types. I know she's not ready to look for a job.  Graduation is two years away and  she's threatening to not come back from Cambridge at the end of the summer (shades of her mother's 1987 call from Dijon to announce she was staying in France?)  But I thought it was important for Chloe to see the broad spectrum of jobs for people with her interests and skills.  To know that there are jobs available for writers with Think Progress.  And producers for Democracy TV with Amy Goodman.  Both seem like very cool jobs to me.

I hesitated before sending the links.  Did this cross into helicopter mom territory?  Would I one day say "Oh, Chloe is going to be reporting on the Republican nomination for Think Progress.  We're going to be at the Republican Convention on Saturday...."

Instead, I wrote a quick note.  "Just wanted you to see what kinds of things are out there.  Look at this Democracy TV news producer job.  You could be like Mary Tyler Moore!  Love, Mom."

Same as it ever was.... same as it ever was.....

How did you decide what you'd be when you grew up?  Did you decide?  Did you grow up? Heh. me neither.


  1. I never thought much about a career when I was younger; I just wanted to have enough money coming in that I could stop worrying about running out of propane in the middle of a Michigan winter.

  2. I briefly considered majoring in English, and then decided it "wasn't practical" and majored in Political Science. Yeah, that was kind of a mistake ... but, in my defense, I really did enjoy studying Poli Sci. It's just that I ended up taking graduate courses in Publishing in order to find a "real" job ...

  3. This is a fabulous essay. I have been through a lot of this (my kids are 20, 15 and 10), and of course, I evolved into being a writer the same way you did -- very circuitously.

    I think your advice to your daughter (both about fear and about financial responsibility) was just excellent. I also wouldn't leave out the possibility of making a good living as a writer. If I had put the same dedication and creativity into developing a serious writing career that I did into my other careers (advertising copywriter, PR person)I could have made quite a success of it.Even now, though I am woefully deficient in the 401k department, I've learned to balance different types of writing work to earn a very comfortable income -- less than I made as a law firm CMO but far more than I ever made in PR or as an editor.

    I had help for an unlikely source -- a self-help book called Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny -- as well as a nine-years (and counting) relationship with a wonderful life coach, Travis Young. But my point is, it can be done. And our smart, talented, energetic daughters can certainly do it!

  4. I always knew I was a writer and referred to myself as one - I just didn't know it was an industry. But then I was eight.

    And the same father who decided careers for my sisters (doctor and dentist, which is kind of the slap in the face to the latter sister in light of his confidence in the former) was quite pleased with me being the artist. Strangely, he didn't think he'd have to worry about me - although he did try to tell me my occupational calling a few times (prosecutor, investigative journalist) and for very short seasons.

    I always leave comments the size of blog entries...

  5. I've never really given very much thought to my own 'career'. I just showed up at my insurance job every day for seven years like I was supposed to.

    However, I find myself giving A LOT of thought about what careers my now 14-year-old son should have when he grows up. In the end, all I know is that whatever he does, I hope he is HAPPY doing it.

  6. Chloe is trying to figure out her next ten years.

    Get a magic 8-ball. Works wonders.

  7. I took a completely useless degree in college (BFA in Theater -- no one in theater cares whether you have a degree, and no one outside of it cares that you have THAT degree).

    Then I took a "responsible" (according to my parents) job -- good benefits, solid, respectable, government -- completely unfulfilling on most counts.

    22 years ago, I became self-employed. I spent the first 35 years of my life trying to toe the line of what others thought would be safe for me. Now I tell young people: Skip that part. Go right to what you want. Otherwise, you'll probably come to the same conclusion in the end, but you'll have spent a lot of years not doing what you want.

  8. Your mention of a degree in French reminded me of Bill Maher's comment on having a degree in Philosophy. "It's as useful as a bidet in a gorilla cage."

    I had several ideas about what I'd do in life when I was young but life got in the way. I spent my life chasing something, just not quite sure what it was, but it would have paid enough for me to live comfortably, never happened.

    They say growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional. Not sure if I grew up or not, I'll let others decide that.

  9. Nope - I studied Norwegian and dropped out when I was a SENIOR. Went back when I worked for an online university and it took me six years to finish - and now a lot of debt and a shitty job market to show for my Summa Cum Laude BS in Business Admin.


  10. Being a mom is riddled with land mines, no?

    You gag, I gag, you barf, I barf.
    You show me the contents of your freshly blown tissue...I barf ON you.
    Dude. The nerve.

  11. I'm further into the parenting years than you (not that it makes much of difference) ... but ...

    As much as you want to give advice, it rarely matters except with the after glow of guilt or pride. What does matter is peer advice or information from someone who has worked in your daughter's area of interest.

    It's a odd thing, once you've given advice, even the smallest amount, and it's some way acted upon, forever you'll have a vested interest in her decision (or until you're tired of ramming your frustrated head through a wall).

    Curious, how parents twist and turn themselves in sacrifice for their kids while not giving much thought to the afterward consequences for themselves. Somehow your future emotional well-being is rarely considered.

    My advice:
    It's now her movie, not yours.

  12. I sold out in college, thinking I'd rather be rich....ha ha ha.
    I began in pre-journalism, and got scared before actually applying to J school at Univ of MO, and went into a business degree, really, duh.
    Oddly enough, I was always a reader and a writer, a communicator, because I talk more than anything.
    Now I've been a sahm for 10,years, and I love it but it brings in no pay, which sucks, and I really don't know what I want to be now that I'm somewhat grown up at nearly 51 years old. Oh dear.
    Chloe will find her way, you've given her the tools to do it.

  13. Thanks for the link. First, you should know that I read your blog entry in an RSS feed on a very small netbook screen -- so at first, I thought the photo was of two subs (or Italian rolls, at least) wrapped in cellophane sitting in your backseat. Then it kind of shifted into place and ohhhhhh they're toe shoes! Heh.

    Anyway, while I always knew I wanted to write fiction, I also knew I would have need a career to pay the bills. Like every English major in the world, I thought I wanted to go into publishing -- specifically, to edit literary novels, even though I *knew* those jobs were impossible to get. I was talking to my then-boyfriend about the minuscule chances of actually getting this type of job -- I still remember it, we were on the subway in Toronto, and I was about to start crying at the hopelessness of it all -- when I said something utterly silly, like, "I don't know what other kind of job I could do. I can't go into marketing or sales. I want to edit books because I think books are something GOOD in the world." Sigh. I clearly had no idea how the publishing industry worked.

    I ended up in journalism, which is weird because I never even took any journalism classes in college because, after a few internships, etc., I didn't think it was for me. Oddly enough, I'm quite happy in my job now as an editor for a trade magazine. And I don't regret for a minute that I didn't move to NYC right after college and struggle as an editorial assistant. I don't think it would have been right for me.

    Who knows what your daughter will think of the links you sent her, but I think it's fabulous. When you're not sure what to do in life, every little bit of direction helps. Good luck to her!

  14. After student teaching and realizing I wasn't cut out for it (I always sided with the students instead of the teachers–this was the early '70s), I dropped out and went to live with my sister in New York City. Wandering around the city looking for a job, I found myself in front of the New York Public Library and remembered seeing the film "You're a Big Boy Now" and thought being a shelf runner in the stacks would be a cool enough job. I walked in and got hired as a clerk (across the street at Mid-Manhattan). After going back to college, that got me a job in the cataloging department of a university library, which led to grad school at the university, which led to my present job in learning technologies. Nothing I ever imagined would happen.

  15. It's nice to see my sister Debbie here :-).

    Your advice to Chloe sounds wonderful.

    I approached career choices from practical considerations and just got lucky finding work that I loved. Kind of accidental.

    My own daughter has gone through hell graduating in 2008 and facing the economic downturn, but she's on a good track now working full time as a teacher's aide while pursuing a double teaching credential. The experience has left its mark though.

  16. You are awesomely supportive, actually. I'm sure Chloe appreciates you supporting what she wants.

    I have learned 2 things from my parents this way----1) That I should find work that is fulfilling and makes me happy and uses my skills and 2)That it is ok to change my mind, and try new things.

    Yay for your embracing that you are a writer (yes--the good news---you already ARE!).

  17. I'm sending my son your way for career/education advice. No one in his right mind would look to me for that sort of help.

  18. About ten years ago I realized that, as a child, my thinking, such as it was, about my future consisted of "Go to college".

    That's it.

    What to do once I got there, what to study, what came after (well, that was obvious, a job, D'oy!) never really caused me much worry.

    And now I'm at Wal-Mart (about which I know I shouldn't complain to you, dear Lisa . . .).

    If my kids were to ask my advice, I would kind of be the opposite. I would not only insist they choose their entire life now, they write, in detail, how they are going to achieve it between now and, oh, the age of 40 or so. Fewer regrets that way, right?

    On the other hand, I've had a really fun life, met people and lived places and done stuff that, had I been single-minded, or even minded, I never would have done. So, it's a set of trade-offs.

  19. When I was in college, I never thought about what I would do to earn money. I expected a career path to magically appear. And after graduation, I randomly chose jobs in much the same way that I would choose "a pant of pants or a soda to go with my Happy Meal". I STILL don't know what I should do to earn money. Publishing literary novels seems like a pipe dream. Career Counselling should be a mandatory course for college freshmen!

  20. I am short on time - having spent my little mini-break from paper writing (talk about mid-life career crisis!) so I will be brief.

    Your writing is ever more exquisite every day. Wow - I really got lost in this.

    I remember one of our first phone conversations, this would have been 3 years ago or more... You told me how you loved writing but would never have thought of doing such a thing for a living.

    Well, this all seems proof that there is no real avoiding who you are. And as for who you are, pretty amazing mom is right at the top of the list too.

  21. sending links to articles that are a follow-up to a recent conversation is not being a helicopter mom, it's saying, "i love you and i'm still thinking about you and the conversation we had and this reminded me of you so here."

    (a helicopter mom would call her daughter, force her to listen as she read the article to her and then inform her daughter that she had contacted the author and to get ready because she had set up a phone call for her daughter to speak to the author to ask her for advice and that she had a list of questions her daughter should ask, so be sure to check her email. that is a helicopter mom.)


    the best thing about being in college right now is that there is still time for the job market to upswing. another great thing is that in today's world of technology and ever evolving networks and corporate identities, the career that chloe could one day love may not even be here yet. it's still out in the ether waiting to be discovered or coded or whatever. i graduated as an english major because i always knew i wanted to be a writer, i just didn't know how it worked, "it" being writing and making money. i ended up writing for businesses. if you would have told me my sophomore year in college that one day i'd be paid to write website content, white papers, and e-newsletters (e-anything), I would have had no idea what you were talking about.

    but here i am. writing e-stuff and still trying to figure out how to get paid to write the stuff i want.

  22. Again, you and I have very parallel lives. I never really found my vocational niche. But I do love my current job and wish I had my teaching license.

  23. Thank you so much, you guys. I love hearing about how you chose or didn't choose your careers, planned or didn't, chased your dreams or are still seeking them.

  24. Great advice. My brother is pushing medical careers to the kids because there will always be a need and (my thought) you can go just about anywhere with a medical related degree--most countries want/need medical professionals. That said, I would gag at the idea of touching strangers and, quite frankly, the kids might hate it. So I try to suggest that they think about a career/job (who has careers anymore?) that they can work for themselves and have some autonomy.

  25. I didn't decide and, consequently, never grew up in quite that way. I've lived my life as it happened, without a forward view.

    It's been good, but it might have different in a good way if I'd thought forward.

  26. I knew in middle school that I wanted to be a writer. I told everyone that I would be one. I didn't get any encouragement for my chosen path from family. I did have a few teachers who encouraged me. I had plenty of bad jobs( some in retail) that motivated me to get back into college and get a degree that led to a career where I would never have to work weekends, nights or involved me asking "what size do you want that in?" I had some luck in writing, enough to give me hope but not enough to live on. I got tired of poverty and went to grad school.When I went to grad school I had plenty of people tell me I was making a mistake. They told me to stick with writing. Well, strangely, going to grad school for Psych got me back to writing. Funny how that all worked out.

    And, you Missy, keep writing. NEVER STOP! You ARE a writer!!!

  27. you are a wonderful mom, that you take the time to remember the growing up part, that you worry how to approach the landmines and how to proceed, you do it with caution and grace...and reflection.

    Someone above said she doesn't need your advice, your wisdom, that is wrong...she does need you...as a friend, a mentor, as someone who cares....any and all that you send her she knows it comes from a place of love and hope.....

    she may grumble if you send her info or advice ,but deep down she feels nurtured and she knows she is not alone facing her own mine fields...

  28. I took the "safe" route and went to law school when there were no jobs coming out of college, and it's served me pretty well, though sometimes I wish I could shed all the trappings, learn carpentry and build things for a living.

    In any event, I think you gave Chloe great advice. She'll figure it out, to the extent any of us do.

  29. You sound so much like me - I totally fell into the career I ended up in too. I probably should've gone into editorial jobs the way my mother wanted me to. I think you're doing fine; nothing wrong with a few suggestions here and there! You are not being a helicopter mom.

  30. I've always wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember. Loved writing and still do. I almost made a living at it, but various events in life plus the fact that I was too skilled at what I did (IT/Network Admin, Email Admin) ended up being my career.

    I have some regrets, but would love to shake the shackles of the IT world and become a writer again. Currently, IT is still winning, but I have my goal still.

  31. My mom cuts out articles for me, too, but they are mostly recipes or cartoons that she thinks relate to my life. Not completely beside the point, she and my father were loving, supportive parents but they never provided me with a single clue about how to "get on" in terms of finding satisfying employment.

    Having never really figured out what I want to do, either, I'm at a complete loss as to how to guide my daughter. Apparently she won't be going into the health services, though. She had to dissect a pig's heart in biology today and she phone me up to tell me that she nearly passed out. (In addition to queasiness, she also has a sad lack of sympathy or anything resembling "bedside manner.")

    If you (or Chloe) work this one out, PLEASE advise.

  32. Lisa, the fact that you reflect so much upon your past and your life path and try to translate it into helpful advice for your kids...well, it just makes you a good mother. :) Really, you should be proud of that. :) I think you are probably too critical of yourself sometimes as a parent, but I liked the advice you gave your daughter. Good job. :)


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