I Said ‘Yes’ to Everything & Now I Am Glad I Did

Featured on Red Tricycle, September 1, 2020

Gathered on any random Saturday night before the pandemic, my friends and I would often recount our day. My tale usually involved our family of four bouncing from activity to activity like human pinballs caroming from one corner of the county to another. Inevitably, someone would kid me for our full itinerary. Dubbed “The Crammer,” I was accused of trying to win a contest of efficiency when, really, I simply operate on the principle that when opportunity presents itself, take it. It is a philosophy that has guided me since before I became a mother.

As a British Literature instructor at a small private high school, I loved teaching the importance of the written word. More so, I loved my students, including “Alex,” as clever and joyful as young people come. I still remember Alex’s smile and the way it won its way into a favor. I remember the way he ran his fingers through his hair when he became embarrassed. I remember the moment I learned he was killed in a car crash. I remember the wails of his brother, also a student at our school, during the funeral service, and how they were muffled when an instructor enveloped him in her long arms. I remember her jacket being discolored by his tears when he raised his head. I remember feeling guilty about all the life I had led and angry about all the life Alex would never experience.

That was the first funeral. Three more followed. In one school year, our tight-knit campus mourned again and again and again after separate, tragic incidents. It felt at once unreal and horrific. Students and staff were devastated by the overwhelming loss and jarred by the idea of young lives ending so abruptly. Much discussion and introspection followed, and though I appreciated that my job involved preparing students for the future, I decided then to enjoy the fullest life I can each day. Hyperaware that virtually any activity “could be the last time,” I said yes to everything I could. Years later, I still appreciate that tomorrow is not assured for me or for anyone I love, and this practice has made me abundantly happier.

My philosophy has allowed me to enjoy some exotic adventures abroad, but more often it has strengthened moments with family and friends. I am lucky to live close to my parents and siblings, and it would be easy to deem our frequent get-togethers as routine. Still, I never turn down a chance to catch up, and I never leave a birthday or Monday Night Football dinner without having laughed all night and feeling refreshed. Likewise, if friends text while we are out and about, we make time for them that evening. I know we may be tired later, but tired at home means dozing on the couch to bad TV. Seeing friends rejuvenates us. The odds are low that it will be “the last time” we hang out but remembering that it could helps me focus and appreciate the company of those I love.

It has been almost a half a year since we sat in my parents’ house, sipped cocktails in our friends’ backyard, or met another couple for dinner. Who knows when we will return to those days? Who knows when we will enjoy theme parks, playlands, or museums again? After remaining “safer at home” for over five months now, my kids talk a lot about “before” – long plane trips that no longer feel safe and quick visits to restaurants that have shuttered their doors for good. “That’s sad, mama,” Thomas recently muttered upon seeing a neighborhood ice cream shop boarded up. From the backseat, he sighed, “Well, at least we went before they closed!” I squeezed the steering wheel and thought, “My goodness, he gets it. He honestly gets it.”

Even before the pandemic, I had marked several “last times” with my boys. There was the last time I pushed Thomas in a stroller. The last time I fed Devin in a highchair. The last time I dressed either one. More lasts will follow. One day Thomas will not kiss me in front of the school gate. One day Devin will not write Santa a letter. One day they will leave home. Watching children grow is to enjoy many firsts and mourn just as many lasts.

So, when the boys ask me to join them in the pool after I just washed my hair I ask, “What if this is the last time?” Would I rather remember splashing and laughing with my sons or not having to shampoo twice? Any time I can, I do. Lately, my days seem spent saying “no”– no playdates, no pool parties, no movie theaters; I want to cram in every “yes” I can.

I also want to get back to packing our days with experiences and people outside of our home. Until then, we enjoy new interests like puzzles, gardening, game nights, and reminiscing about our adventures, big and small—not in sorrow for what we have lost, but in gratitude for what we did not let pass us by.

What We Really Learned during Distance Learning

By March, the 2019-2020 school year was humming along nicely for my sons, Devin, a kindergartener, and Thomas, a second grader. They were happy in environments that challenged and encouraged them. Their instructors sent home weekly updates, and dinner conversation filled in more detail. Devin lamented that “Ms. Smith” too often rearranged table assignments; Thomas noted that “Ms. Brown” was stricter than previous instructors. Still, every morning the boys sprinted out of the car, backpacks bouncing like giant paddle balls, and eagerly disappeared through the front gate.

Then came Friday, March 13. My sons and I stood before the same gate in near disbelief, waving uncertainly at Ms. Smith and Ms. Brown. Instruction was moving online, and no one knew how long students and teachers would collaborate this way. As expected, distance learning proved a pale substitute for proximate education, and Google Classroom lacked the joy and energy of a teeming campus. Still, for all its shortcomings, remote learning afforded something for which I will always be grateful: a genuine glimpse into what makes these women so formidable.

I stayed out of the “classrooms” at home, but I heard much when passing the bedrooms where my sons were situated. One morning I caught Ms. Smith explaining that the silent “e” makes the “i” say its name. She asked if anyone, then, could pronounce “k-i-t-e.” I eavesdropped at the door, hoping to hear Devin answer. Instead, Ms. Smith excitedly intoned, “Yes, Steve! Unmute yourself and tell us what word this is!” Steve confidently replied, “Ms. Smith.” He took a beat. “Scooby Doo is opening today.” A few students giggled, and I remembered why I could never teach elementary school. In every way a Type A personality, I recoiled at the interruption and waited for Ms. Smith to put a stop to it. To my surprise and horror, she did not.

Instead she steered a raucous tangent about whether Scoob! could possibly be better than Trolls World Tour. One breathless voice after another joined the debate, each high-pitched pronouncement outshouting the one before. Like rolling thunder, the giggles gave way to chuckles, then squeals of unbridled laughter. Through the crack in the doorway, I spied Devin doubled over the keyboard and smacking his right palm against his forehead in hysterics. I had not seen him this happy in days. Then, 90 seconds into chaos, Ms. Smith tapped “Steve” again. He announced the word was “kite” and the lesson continued. I closed the door appreciating what an acrobat the elementary school teacher is. And what a marvel Ms. Smith is. She had understood what those children needed in that moment, and it was not a quick answer to a spelling question. Almost without warning these young souls had lost so much: school, friends, visits with grandparents and cousins, playdates, parks, sports, playlands, restaurant visits, parties, theme parks, fine arts programs, music classes and normalcy. Ms. Smith gave them a chance to at least take back being silly, and it was glorious to watch. Afterward, any time I heard Devin laugh during class I offered a private thank you to Ms. Smith for bringing cheer to a boy so badly in need of it.

Days later I overheard Thomas’ class discussing fractions. Standard stuff until a voice I did not recognize loomed in the background. Ms. Brown’s teenage son had entered the room. Ms. Brown asked her son to leave and do his homework. When he claimed to have none, she uttered a stern, “Yes. You. Do.” A long, deep sigh. Then a slammed door. I smiled, for it was all a little awkward, a little amusing and completely relatable.

Before then I had thought little of the fact that Ms. Brown was a mother of two. Two was just a number, the same number as mine, the average number of children in U.S. families. The quick interlude, however, revealed there was nothing average about what Ms. Brown was doing. With scarce notice, she was teaching, reassuring and disciplining twenty-nine children who sat miles away while teaching, reassuring and disciplining her own children who sat mere feet away. Ms. Brown had always exhibited such a command of the classroom that I had not considered that she was juggling her own challenges. I began to pay closer attention. I listened in awe each time she stopped a lesson to console an anxious student late logging on because his connection was spotty, to calm a flustered student who could not get his math homework to save, to listen as another teary student described  a cancelled birthday. I wondered what morning routine she sacrificed so that she could instead open and monitor the “classroom” a half hour early so the kids could just talk, laugh, yell, rant and rave. I nodded thankfully when she marshalled a cheerful tone and urged her young pupils to remember that this challenge is temporary. The narrow lens that was my 7-year old son had painted a stern disciplinarian, but the intimacy of distance learning allowed me to see a caring side I would not have otherwise.

I now enter the new school year with a renewed appreciation for the joy educators provide, for the stabilizing force they represent and for the strength it may take them to muster those smile that say, “It will be okay.”

All I Want Right Now is a Door with a Lock

Featured on Red Tricycle, August 26, 2020

Distance learning resumed two weeks ago, but I realized on day one what I will need to survive it: a door with a lock. Not an easy-twist knob lock. I want a padlock. A hardened steel padlock.

Actually, the door behind which I write during the day has a lock. But it may as well also have a sign that reads, “Come in! Your wish is my command.”

Each day starts with such promise. Early risers, my six-year-old and eight-year-old have plenty of time to eat, bathe and dress. We even have time for a quick walk, after which I arrange a snack basket filled with fruit, crackers and cheese that the boys can grab during breaks. I ensure school supply boxes have every conceivable item needed from now until senior year of high school. Twelve sharpened pencils, eight glue sticks, a calculus calculator. Chilled water bottles sit under desks so as not to fall onto school-issued Chromebooks, devices the boys treat with a delicacy reserved for newborns and Xbox controllers.

All my morning preparation is designed to stave off interruption later because once school starts, then it will be my time. I will have earned it. By then I will have spent two hours pretending to care about zombies, Creepers, and Endermen. I will have consoled Thomas after someone “accidentally” disassembled his Lego tower. I will have pulled a microscopic splinter from Devin’s toe with my good tweezers and a cracked magnifying glass. When the computer chimes at 8:30, it will be my time. Except it never is.

Before I have written even a full paragraph, someone tests the strength of the door hinges and bursts in because “Mama, my camera stopped working!” Because “mama, my math folder’s missing!” Because “mama, someone’s using a chainsaw outside, and I can’t hear!” Because “mama, we’re supposed to move around, and I can’t find the frisbee!” Because “mama, there’s a spider in my room!” Every disruption represents calamity.

I stop what I am doing to reboot the computer for the sixth time that week, locate the math folder sitting in plain sight, shut the window, tell my boy to grab a basketball, and pretend to remove what was probably a cricket.

I return to my room, close the door, put in my earbuds, and settle into a rhythm. I cobble together a few sentences before a blast of wind blows into the room and two beaming faces loom over me. “Lunchtime, mama!” Terrific.

After stockpiling an arsenal of bread crust and apple peel, the boys head outside for “recess” while I clean yet more dishes, sweep up and long for the days of 2019 when lunch was consumed somewhere, anywhere, else. At 12:55 Thomas and Devin stumble back in looking like two Etruscan gladiators. Too late to turn the hose on them, I remind the boys that school resumes at 1:00. Then it will be my time. Except for last week, which was “Back to School” early dismissal at 1:05. Really. 1:05. And except for Wednesdays—professional development early dismissal.

No matter. After school the boys have homework. Then it will be my time. Until ten minutes later when Thomas throws the door open. “Done!” That smile. He is convinced I will be proud. “Thomas, there’s no way you did your paragraph, math, and reading.” “I’m gonna read tonight in bed.” Thus ensues a time-chewing debate on when homework should be completed. “She said to do homework after school. She never said right after school!” Apparently semantic dispute is part of Common Core. No sooner have I shooed Thomas out of the room than Devin needs help spelling a word. I ask him to try his best and promise to check it later. He waves me off. “I’ll just ask Alexa.” Before I can say Amazon Echo, my six-year-old is holding a conversation with our smart device, and I wonder if he will ever need me or any human again. When we reach a merciful end to the exegetics of homework (“I just need to color the chart but is that really schoolwork?”) the boys are released to their own creativity.

We are fortunate to live where the climate is mild and yards are big. We are also fortunate to know generous souls who buy our children a variety of games, toys, and books. Imagine my shock, then, when I learn that “there’s nothing to do.” I threaten to gut their toy room and turn it into a workout room, my dream closet, a wine tasting room, whatever will get them out of my room. They slink out.

A few sentences later, I am interrupted by a quiet knock and two sad eyes peering through a small opening. “Devin’s building a train track. He doesn’t want to play catch.” I glance from those doe eyes to my blinking screen icon wondering why we didn’t have that third kid. Before I can answer, he bats his giant eyes. “I don’t suppose you want to throw the ball around with me, mama?”

It hits me, hard. This most extroverted, most gregarious of eight-year-old has lost what matters most to him. He has lost before-school jaunts through the halls with school friends. He has lost recess battles and challenges with classmates. He has lost lunchtime conversation with those his own age, with those who share his interests. He has lost collaborative work that helps him learn from and laugh with his peers. He has lost weekend playdates and parties. He has lost everyone except Devin, his father, and me. But dad is on a call, and his brother is finally entertaining himself. Right now, I am all he has.

I quietly shut my laptop and smile. “Sure thing.” One day he won’t ask me to play. One day he will close his bedroom door, maybe wishing it had a padlock. I stand up, pull the door all the way open, and tell myself I can write tonight when everyone is asleep. Then it will be my time.

Of Everything The Pandemic Has Taken Away, I Miss Touch The Most

Featured on Scary Mommy, May 30, 2020

by Elizabeth Allison

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visuals/Unsplash

I idled in the driver’s seat when the masked man strode past my door and knocked on the trunk. I pushed the release button and watched him toss the plastic bag in, slam the trunk shut, and run off without a word. It was quick and dreamlike. Driving home from Target I asked aloud, “Is this real life?”

I felt like a character in the first act of a horror movie; no fateful circumstance had befallen me, but in mere days an eeriness had settled over my interactions with the “outside” world. For two months now, it has felt as though something sinister has been percolating beneath the surface of normal family life, while an unease and a sense of incompleteness has permeated my thoughts.

At first, I thought the outside world felt surreal because I see so few faces now. True, I am not Will Smith, sole survivor of New York City in I Am Legend. There are people around — or signs of them, anyway. Cardboard boxes of provisions appear on our porch, delivered by drivers we never see. An errant soccer ball lies on the back lawn, our eight-year-old neighbor now afraid to hop over and retrieve it. Strangers fetch our dinner from restaurants after unseen faces take our order, prepare our food and box our meal. One night I studied giant Sharpie letters on a receipt – ALLISON – and tried to discern if the writer was male or female, young or old. Was I that bored? Maybe. Was I that desperate to connect with someone on the outside? Probably.

Still mulling over my unease after my Target run, I entered the house to the sounds of screaming. In the family room, my two boys were arguing over who broke the green light saber. The voices and volume felt familiar, almost comforting. Maybe I just hated how quiet it was out there. Our home feels more chaotic since the pandemic, yes, but it is not at all quieter. Our house remains a loud space where my husband and I still find little time to speak privately while social distancing with two young boys. Outside the home, though, I have lost simple daily conversation: chatting with the barista, the parents at drum class, the moms at school. I miss the little moments that recharge an extroverted stay-at-home-mom and bind me to my community.

What is worse, my few live encounters with others have ceased to be energizing, discolored now by risk and implication. A partition separates me from the cashier at the local market. On walks, neighbors cross the street when we approach. The one time I ventured out to buy dinner, I waited outside the cafe until a lone customer completed his transaction inside. Just three months ago, my boys and I had discussed how lucky we are to live in such a safe area. Now everyone is a conceivable threat, even me.

Online interactions are only slightly more satisfying. On Google classroom, my six-year-old speaks to friends reduced to glitchy one-inch squares. I watch my frustrated eight-year-old manage brief conversations amid the din of twenty housebound second graders speaking at once. Zoom dinners are nice, but the “meeting” invitations we send each other underscore the app’s intended purpose. During a Zoom game night, a friend left to use the restroom, and I found myself staring sadly at her empty chair. It made me miss her in-person visits more.

While meet-ups allow me to see and hear loved ones, they do little to shake off the disquiet I have carried since March, the strange sense that I am not living my real life.

Then one evening the true source of my anxiety became clear when I participated in a Zoom gathering with some former students from the high school where I taught for fifteen years. As we all adjourned for the night, one “boy” (he is now thirty-two) pressed a palm to his computer screen as a way of saying goodbye. That is when it hit me. I and the people I am closest to are tactile. We hug hello. We hug goodbye. We hold each other’s hands when we are upset. We rub each other’s backs when we are scared. We pat each other’s shoulders when we are excited. Even in the classroom I had communicated often through touch. The handshakes as each student entered my classroom on day one. The slap on the back when a student cracked a tough passage. The high five when a student aced his final. The hugs on graduation.

We know that touch is the first sense a baby develops in the womb. We know, too, that a caring touch can stimulate growth in children and alleviate a variety of physical and emotional difficulties in adults. While I know that needs and comfort zones differ from person to person, I also know that more than faces, more than voices, I miss touching. I want to hug my mom to validate the ache I know she feels for her absent children and grandchildren who until March had been the happy recipients of frequent drop-in visits. I want to shake the hands of our principal and teachers to thank them for their Herculean efforts these past weeks. I want to hold my dad’s hand in communion as he serenely reminds me that nothing lasts forever. I want to watch my boys grab their cousin Ashley’s hand and run with her to the lawn, to watch them curl up with my husband’s mother while she reads Dragons Love Tacos.

There has been much talk about “when this is over.” Will we feel safe traveling “when this is over”? Will we feel safe sending our children to school “when this is over”? How will we even know “when this is over?” On the issues of travel and schools, I honestly do not know when I will feel secure. Much of my outlook will depend on what health experts advise. I do know, though, that my own unease, my own feeling of incompleteness, will be over when I no longer rely on touch screens and touchpads and can instead offer and receive an unfettered, utterly human touch.

I Used To Go Over The Top For Birthdays, And Now We Just Travel Instead

Featured on Scary Mommy, February 14, 2020

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Garbage bins sat stuffed with plastic tumblers, paper plates, disposable cutlery and cardboard. So much cardboard. Each birthday gift my son had unwrapped seemed hermetically sealed inside the stuff. As I hosed down the patio, attacking gooey blue frosting and greasy mozzarella with the strongest nozzle attachment I owned, the opening of presents felt like ages ago. Now the five-year-old was crashed out in the den while I stood outside, shivering and tired.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: family on train car

I was exhausted well before the first guests had arrived at my son’s “It’s a Jungle in Here!” extravaganza, a birthday celebration weeks in the making. I had created themed invitations; hired a mobile zoo to cart in reptiles and birds; installed a backyard zip line; designed rainforest signage and attraction “tickets”; collected canteens, flashlights and trail mix for party favors; located a bakery that could craft zebras and elephants onto a cake; ordered food; prepped more food; and purchased color-coordinated goods to sit atop rented tables – all on the heels of my younger son’s birthday weeks earlier.

For my younger son, I had hired a train to circle the neighborhood, then fretted the entire time that I had not thought to obtain a permit from the city. Previous years had seen large trucks arrive with bouncy houses and inflatable slides before a fleet of SUV’s departed with cellophane bags of small bouncy balls and “temporary tattoos” destined for a life spent under sofa cushions.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: child at birthday wearing jungle costume and holding parrot surrounded by other children

For the most part, my kids enjoyed the parties, and my husband and I cherished seeing them surrounded by so much love. Still, the boys expressed frustration at not being able to play with many in attendance, as no classmate, friend or family member was excluded. Also, the party themes grew increasingly complex and expensive while not reflecting what our children wanted necessarily. As I scrubbed juice off sticky rattan and pulled balloon remnants from the vegetable garden, I wondered if I could offer my kids something else. I decided to try.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: jumpy castle at birthday by pool

When my younger son’s next birthday loomed, I proposed an alternative to a big party: a short getaway that he would help plan. I explained that in traveling for his birthday, my son would not be opening a mountain of gifts — but that he would be seeing new sights, enjoying new experiences and creating memories for his family. To my shock, he exclaimed, “Let’s go somewhere!”

Within a week, my younger son helped design a two-day train trip to Santa Barbara. As I expected, the entire family had great fun at the zoo, the beach and the mission. What I had not anticipated was the time it afforded us to talk and enjoy each other without the distractions of home. I also was surprised that, even with meals and attractions, our weekend away cost the same as a large party. A few weeks later his brother followed suit with two days in San Diego. We have not looked back since.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: two kids walking around in woods

Of course, traveling with kids does take planning, but the boys love the preparation process and the excitement it generates when we arrange a vacation in the following way.

We start well in advance and begin by placing a giant state map on the dining room table. We brainstorm places that we have yet to explore as a family. No location is rejected at this stage.

We compute mileage to and from the different sites and decide which trips constitute a reasonable amount of time in the car and which are better suited to a longer break.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: two kids walking around in woods

Using the pared down list, we research what experiences each place offers. We identify any activities we have already enjoyed and consider whether they are worth repeating. We discuss, too, which sights and experiences would be new, age-appropriate and fun.

We read up on hotel options. We study costs, amenities, user reviews, and distance to attractions.

Time to pick a destination! While the family may debate a few options, the birthday boy ultimately makes the call. Any disappointment felt by others is tempered by the understanding that “there is always next time” and that most attractions are not going anywhere. Any notes we have collected, we save for the next birthday trip discussion.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: kid wandering in desert

When the excursion is a few days away, we check weather forecasts and finalize activities. We also investigate any attractions en route to our destination that may be interesting and help to break up the drive. Then we pack accordingly.

Finally, we pull out of the driveway armed with water, snacks, maps to chart our progress, a camera that the boys can use to capture whatever sparks their interest, and programmed playlists of their making.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: kid wandering in desert

Our children benefit enormously from helping to organize a getaway. For one, they feel empowered and respected in being allowed to plan a vacation for the family. Consequently, they have grown more thoughtful as they consider what experiences they want to impart rather than what they hope to receive.

Secondly, they have become increasingly curious. The more that my kids see and do, the more they want to see and do. They research and appreciate places that do not hold obvious appeal, understanding that destinations like Death Valley, Sequoia National Park, and Pinnacles National Park offer an array of unique enjoyments. They also have become more adventurous and have developed new interests. They have trekked to waterfalls, explored caves, slid down giant sand dunes and paddled across lakes.

Best of all, today the boys measure their age not by ill-defined numbers, but by how their abilities and interests have evolved since their last birthday – how much farther they can trek, how much longer they can paddle, how many new activities they are trying. For each of my sons, a birthday is not just about getting older or taller. It is about growing as an individual, as a family member, and as a participant in a vast and fascinating world.

We Took A Vacation With Our Child-Free Friends And It Was The Best Trip Ever

Featured on Scary Mommy, March 13, 2020

I have shared more adventures, big and small, with Pam than any person outside of my family. We met in middle school, remained close in high school and college, and served in each other’s weddings. We have never lived more than twenty miles apart, text constantly, and know virtually everything about each other. Our bond has grown stronger as our families have grown, too.

When Pam asked, “Why don’t we six go to Alaska?” I was not surprised. My family — my husband Jeff and our two boys — hang out with Pam and her husband, Dave, frequently. What surprised me was the inexplicable dread I felt as she spoke.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: moose in nature

Before long, Pam, Dave, and Jeff had outlined a twelve-day itinerary that included flying to Anchorage, driving to Denali, returning to Anchorage and embarking on a seven-day cruise through the Inside Passage. I had outlined a mental image of my own that included the kids getting car sick en route to Denali, the kids wearing out on scenic hikes, the kids getting seasick on the cruise ship, and the kids suffering meltdowns during long, late dinners. Such difficulties had occurred on previous vacations, but they had never ruined them. Why did I feel so anxious this time?

My fears had everything to do with Pam and Dave. The only casualties of previous turmoil had been my husband and myself, not dear friends who worked hard and were entitled to a trouble-free break. Jeff and I were deserving, too, but I believed that I had a realistic grasp of what a long trip with children would look like. I preferred traveling closer to home with other parents who understood the challenges of a family vacation. I felt nervous knowing that Pam and Dave were spending hard-earned money and precious time off on a trip that could prove slower and more inconvenient than they anticipated.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of mountain

Finally, I fessed up. I detailed for Pam all that could occur – the good, the bad, and the apocalyptic. “We know that!” she laughed. “We know it will be different with kids. That’s the point!”

Months later we pulled away from the jetway, and I crossed my fingers.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: little boy on boat

So what happened? Thomas, then six years old, wore out on the first hike, plunked down onto the mud, and cried the rest of the trek. He also lost his “all-time favorite” hat in Denali and cried the entire drive back to the hotel. On the cruise, Devin, then four years old, suffered from stomach troubles, screamed in our cramped bathroom for an hour, and cried the rest of the night. Two days later, he suffered from exhaustion and cried throughout much of Dave’s formal birthday dinner, only stopping when he fell asleep in his pasta.

Still, my boys barely remember these episodes. Instead, they still recount in detail the two sea lions atop an iceberg that floated by our stateroom, the shattering sound of a glacier breaking off into the bay, and the grizzlies, caribou, and puffins they spotted. Each time my sons relive their trip, I am reminded of what we gained from vacationing with friends who do not have children.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: whale tale in water

Friends without children can help parents challenge their own assumptions of what activities are and are not kid-friendly. We would not have watched a beaver at work had Pam and Dave not invited us to consider a hike more challenging than usual. They gently pushed us out of the frenzied cruise buffet and into the ship’s nicest restaurant, where we enjoyed a more intimate ambiance and more time to linger over a freshly prepared meal. Pam and Dave prompted us to take a longer Juneau excursion than we had originally considered. As a result, we were treated to an up-close, breathtaking experience with breaching humpback whales.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of seals on ice

Our children were encouraged to try new things, too. It is easy for Thomas and Devin to fall into family routines, but the presence of “new blood” pumped new life into their sense of adventure. Thomas presented a brave face when we encountered a gigantic moose on foot. Devin gamely agreed to an intense banana boat ride to Ketchikan island, and when the rain drenched him as we hiked through the rain forest, he laughed instead of cried.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of mountain

Friends without children can help ease some of the pressure felt in the incessant job that is parenting, in part because they are not distracted or drained by their own kids. When Thomas started to melt down upon learning that the mini-golf course had unexpectedly closed, Dave quietly called him over to try out his “fancy” camera. A new voice, a new approach, a new toy – Thomas never mentioned golf again. At breakfast, I harped on Thomas to eat over his plate. As he grew increasingly irritable, Pam asked him what he most looked forward to when returning to school, and the rest of our meal went smoothly. Watching Thomas and Devin interact with my friends helped me realize that I spend so much time directing my boys’ behavior that I sometimes forget to simply chat with them.

Traveling with friends also helped our kids consider people and needs beyond their own. They know that Pam and Dave do not share their enthusiasm for trains, but they saw our friends happily board the White Pass Railroad anyway. When we returned to our cabin, we discussed plans for the evening. It was encouraging to hear Thomas ask, “Should we see what Pam and Dave want to do?” He clearly wanted to reciprocate our friends’ kindness.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of mountain kid looking into camera

Finally, traveling with another couple brought a freshness to our conversations. Daily discussions, at home and away from home, so often center on kids. So, while I loved watching my sons admire the mountain scenery, I was equally happy when we put them to bed and sat on the balcony with Pam and Dave. It felt like a vacation within a vacation to breathe in the ocean air, sip champagne, and not expound on the merits of Minecraft or Ryan’s Toy Review.

While I still appreciate the benefits of traveling with other families, I also realize I had underestimated what children can do and enjoy. Before Thomas and Devin were born, Jeff and I journeyed to Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. We put off starting a family because we could not imagine traveling with children. I wonder sometimes what we might have shown our boys by now had I not been so fearful. Still, I remain grateful to my friends for helping me focus on the benefits to be experienced on a family trip instead of the obstacles to be survived. Without their influence we might not have tackled last summer’s four-hour, knee-deep mud hike in Kauai, or booked our upcoming snorkel trip to Central America. Now I scroll through travel sites with a confidence that tells me, “We can do that. All of us.”

How A ‘Help Wanted’ Bulletin Board Changed Our Family

Featured on Scary Mommy, February 20, 2020

“If I do it, can I play Xbox after?”

“Is everyone doing it?”

“Can you just do it since you’re better at it?”

So would begin the litany of questions when I assigned my sons even the most basic weekend chores. Whether charged with watering, dusting, or raking, the boys inevitably would whine, slump their shoulders, and feign sudden, fretful bewilderment. “How do I know which plants need water?” “What’s a Swiffer?” “We have a shed?”

Truthfully, my children were not sparing me much labor by pitching in. I cannot count how many times I would stop what I was doing to liberate an area rug being swallowed by a vacuum or to rescue a vase perched a micrometer from a mantel’s edge. Still, I soldiered on, determined to instill in my kids a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility. Each weekly outburst, though, stoked simmering doubts that my mission was succeeding.

Then one dreamlike Friday the tables turned.

My seven-year-old announced that he would need to finish his science fair project over the weekend. With a toothy smile, he turned from my husband to me and with complete sincerity asked, “Who wants to help me?” I waited for him to appreciate the irony.

Though that night did not afford our family any lessons on paradoxes, it did produce our new favorite tool for a stress-free weekend: The Help Wanted Bulletin Board. Our family has found this device to be most valuable when used in the following way.

How A Household ‘Help Wanted’ Bulletin Board Changed Our Family
Courtesy of Elizabeth Allison

  1. The Help Wanted Bulletin Board is literally a bulletin board that hangs next to our refrigerator, the most visited spot in the house.
  2. Throughout the week, each member of the family takes a piece of paper, jots down a chore they anticipate may require assistance, and pins it to the board. Each person posts two jobs in total.
  3. The activities must be reasonable in scope. Our family defines reasonable as any task that can be performed by any family member in one hour. Jobs have included cleaning out the toy chests, skimming the pool, practicing math facts, and weeding the backyard.
  4. All requests should be posted by Friday night.
  5. Although everyone peruses the job postings throughout the week, no one commits to any until Saturday morning. At that time, each member of the family signs their name onto two posted job requests. I have found that my boys have a greater sense of control and approach their responsibilities more eagerly when they can select their jobs. To that end, the adults choose last so that the kids have more tasks from which to pick.
  6. All jobs must be completed by early Sunday evening. The job solicitor and the job assistant decide together when they will work to complete the assignment.
  7. When a job is done, the posting is crossed out. I am still amused by how triumphant the boys look when they do this, but I also understand that the “x” is tangible proof of their success and a validation of their work.
  8. Finally, right before bedtime on Sunday night, we gather at the bulletin board and review what our family accomplished. Each job solicitor thanks his or her assistant, and it is impressive how much goodwill is fostered before our children retire for the evening.

Ending the weekend on a calm, harmonious note is but one benefit of this approach to chores. Many others have followed. With the Help Wanted Bulletin Board sitting in plain view every day, my sons understand that the weekend will bring housework. This visual reminder allows the boys to prepare mentally for chores. By eliminating any surprises, the board has reduced much of the whining in our house.

Though household duties are still inevitable, they are no longer seemingly arbitrary. The board lets my children consider how they will contribute in the days ahead. They now have developed a sense of ownership by having a say in what they do, and this autonomy has fostered pride in their work.

Each family member appreciates the support they have received while simultaneously feeling good about helping someone else. In this way, there now exists a feeling of our family operating as a team. We enter the weekend knowing that someone has already offered to help us. What’s more, no one person is shunted off to a corner of the house to work alone, as sometimes would happen before we used the board. Instead, each of us enjoys companionship and conversation while we work. More than once my kids have spontaneously offered up stories about what is happening at school while occupied with sweeping or washing dishes beside me. For me, these unprompted talks are the happiest unintended consequence of the way we handle housework now.

My kids now take time to discern which of their own tasks they can do by themselves and which are best suited to a team effort. Subsequently, they have become more transparent about which responsibilities they truly find difficult and which they just do not want to do.

Finally, the Help Wanted Bulletin Board reinforces the notion that sooner or later everyone needs help, even mom and dad. Often children are told at school or at home that asking for help is not a flaw, but an asset exhibited by strong leaders. The Help Wanted Bulletin Board reinforces this sometimes-challenging idea. Each day it literally shows my boys that even the “oldest and wisest” can seek support and even the smallest and youngest can provide it.