Monday, February 18, 2008

When Do Working Moms Work in a Work Out?

Like most people, I could use a bit more exercise. Maybe more than a bit. At The 36-Hour Day, I put my excuses on the table and ask other working moms to tell me how they manage to get their work outs on.

The "I Can Be Fitter" Group here at Work It, Mom! is causing me some major anxiety.

I used to be fantastically fit. But that was, like, a lifetime ago. Right now, I am a slug. Or, at least, I feel like I am a slug. Aside from bench-pressing about 20 percent of my body weight in toddler, I don't get much exercise.

I want to -- I really want to. According to William J. Evans, director of the Nutrition, Metabolism, and Exercise Laboratory at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, "Regular aerobic exercise increases life expectancy by decreasing the risk of a host of chronic diseases." And I know I need to -- I'm 35 years old, those last few pounds of baby weight aren't going to melt off by themselves. I just can't figure out how to squeeze a work out into my already over-scheduled schedule.

I commute 40 miles each way to my office, a trip that can take 45 minutes or nearly two hours, depending on traffic, the weather, and the time of day. Most of the fitness and exercise classes that are offered by my town's community center start by 6 p.m. -- there's no way for me to make it back there on time.

Work out at home? It's a great idea, in theory. In practice, though? I never do it. If I'm home, I'm doing laundry, or cooking, or cleaning, or doing freelance work, or wrangling the youngest kids, and if I'm not doing any of those things, then I'm probably asleep -- or longing to be. After getting up with the kids durng the night -- and it seems like someone or another is always up at night -- the idea of getting up even earlier just so I can sweat seems torturous. Work out after the kids are in bed? That's when I catch up on my freelance work (please note the timestamp on this blog post)!

What's stopping me from joining a gym? Myself, I guess. And time. I don't know when I'd go, even if I really wanted to sweat in public. (Yeah, I don't have a good answer for this one. Especially since some experts say that three 10-minute workouts can be as good for you as a single 30-minute session.)

Compounding the problem is the guilt. I already spend so much time away from my kids; how can I justify taking more time for myself?

OK, after writing all of this out, even I can tell that they're really just bad excuses. But still... I'm stuck. How do you working moms make time to exercise?

Read the comments here, browse through the blog's archives, and share your thoughts in the comments (you don't need to be a member of Work It, Mom! to do so).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Does My Preschooler Really Need To Take Ballet?

A confession: I realize that my youngest child has barely ever been to the library and my 3-year-old thinks a fun weekend is one spent buying groceries. Her classmates spend their free time at dance or art or music classes, and affluent New York City toddlers can study anything from American Sign Language to sushi, so I wonder... should my preschooler be doing more?

There’s an old joke about what happens with kids in a large family.

With the first kid, the joke goes, you take her everywhere — playgroups, Mommy and Me gymnastics, the park, music lessons, the library, baby ballet, etc. When the second kid comes along, you take them to playgroups, the park, and the library. With three, you take them to the park. But by the time numbers four and more arrive, you’re taking them everywhere again — to the grocery store, the drug store, the dry cleaners, the doctor’s office…

It’s certainly true in our family.

Our 14, 12, and 9 year olds are plenty busy, but I think our 15-month-old has set foot in the library maybe three times in his life (and he slept through each visit). We have about a kajillion books at home, of course, but still. On Saturday, our 3-year-old wanted to “Go out and DO SOMETHING,” and when I asked her what she wanted to do, she said, “Let’s go to COSTCO and RUN ERRANDS!”

I’m not sure how guilty to feel about this. On the one hand, I’m all for kids having plenty opportunities to learn and grow and do things that have captured their interest, but I’m talking about a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old here. They’re in preschool and daycare while my husband and I work full-time, and, honestly, we’re so busy during the week that it’s kind of a relief to not have extracurricular commitments on the weekends. But, on the other hand… am I depriving my kids?

A New York Sun article described the mind-numbing array of mind-enriching activities available to well-heeled toddlers in specialty schools in New York City. In addition to its American Sign Language classes, miniMasters offers Suzuki-method violin, piano, and guitar lessons for children 3 and older; and courses in French, Spanish, and Mandarin to its members,” the article points out.

So, is my 3-year-old missing out because she’s never taken an art class (let alone Mandarin)?
According to the experts, maybe not. Studies on overscheduling tend to focus on the effect it has on older kids and teenagers, but even toddlers and preschoolers may be feeling the burnout. “Kids are often kind of overscheduled even as toddlers, even as preschoolers,” Kenneth A. Haller, assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post. Other articles point out that stress may lead little kids to act out at school — or beg you to let them stay home.

Scheduling and stress aren’t the only issues, though — there’s also the expense. Highly specialized classes can cost $700 and up per session; it’s not uncommon for parents in major metropolitan areas to spend $75 or more per piano lesson for their preschooler.

Yes, getting into a great college is a concern, but how well-rounded does one have to be for pre-K? It makes me wonder how many guilt-ridden working parents parents are trying to buy quality time for their kids instead of spending quality time with them. Or how many moms and dads have signed junior up for soccer and art and music because “all her friends are doing it.”

Keeping up with the Jonses? I can barely keep up with the Alphonses.

What extra-curricular activities do your kids do? How old were they when they started?

Quick, Easy Valentine's Day Crafts

Tired of flimsy, garish dime-store cards, but no time (or inclination) to make your own? Don't know the names of every single kid in all of your kids' classes? Working mothers over at Work It, Mom! offered their quick and easy Valentine's Day craft ideas, and I added a few more of my own (under the guise of the Work It, Mom! Team, of course). Here's a taste:
6.) Make heart-shaped stained-glass cookies for the class. (It's even easier if you use store-bought sugar-cookie dough!)
Don't want to bake? Here's another idea:
9.) Older kids can make and trade beaded Valentine's Day bracelets instead of cards; younger kids can make bracelets for their friends out of strips of pretty ribbon.
Check out the rest here.

How Does One Find True Happiness? Read On...

Undercover as the Work It, Mom! team, I interview lawyer-turned-author Gretchen Craft Rubin about her latest book, The Happiness Project. She spent a year testing out every tip and truism about happiness that she could find; on her blog about the project, she shares her own formula for happiness, inspirational quotes, podcasts, and insightful posts about finding joy in life. (Her Earth-shattering happiness formula? "To be happier, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. Clunky, but it works.")

Raised in Kansas City, the lawyer-turned-author lives in New York City with her husband and their two daughters.

You've written biographies of John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill, and your first book was a self-help satire analyzing power, money, fame, and sex; most recently, you worked on a collaboration with photographer Dana Hoey about why people like to destroy their belongings. How did you go from there to The Happiness Project?

My overarching interest is human character. Why do people behave the way they do? Each of my books explores this issue in a different way. I realized that I needed to make a systematic study of happiness -- especially if I personally wanted to be happy!What's been the most challenging part about working on The Happiness Project?The most challenging thing I've done -- and one of the most exciting and fun things I've done -- is to launch a blog. I was incredibly intimidated by the prospect, but now it is one of the joys of my life.

You earned your undergraduate and law degrees from Yale. Do you still practice law?

Nope, I gave up law. I like writing much better.What led you from a career in law to a career in writing?Once when I was visiting a friend in education grad school, I saw that she had a lot of dry, dull books lying around. I said sympathetically, "Do you have to read these books for your program?" She said, "Yes, but that's what I read on my own, anyway." I realized then that I never did any work related to law unless I absolutely had to. And since, at that time, I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, I was surrounded by people passionate about law. I decided I wanted to do for my work the things that I did for fun. As it happened, at the time, I was working on a draft of what would be my first book, Power Money Fame Sex. I realized that some people write books for a living -- and I could, too.

What was your first-ever published piece about?

Zoikes, I don't remember! Good question!

What has been your biggest challenge in terms of juggling your career and motherhood?

Not having enough time. I'd like to spend more time doing Mommy things, and more time writing and researching. There just aren't enough hours in the day.

What do your kids think of what you do?

My 2-year-old is too young to understand. My older daughter (age 8) is beginning to see what I do. She likes to create "documents," loves to type, likes to write stories. So she's very intrigued with the process. However, she recently informed me that she wants to be an actress; writing is just her hobby.

Has The Happiness Project changed the way you live your life?

Absolutely. In so many ways. And for the better.

What do you do when you're feeling overwhelmed or uninspired?

My refuge is always reading. If I feel sad or overwhelmed, I often read children's literature. I never tire of the great children's classics. If I'm feeling uninspired right now, I often turn to a non-fiction book related to happiness. I have a huge stack waiting for me, and I find the subject inexhaustibly fascinating.

Get Your Macrame On

It doesn't seem possible, given that it was 13 degrees out yesterday, but summer is right around the corner. Or, at least, the time to line up your kids' summer camp is right around the corner. I was hip-deep in application forms, booklets, brochures, and websites for weeks while researching this piece for The Boston Globe Magazine, about the top five day camps in the Greater Boston area.

I've already gotten a couple of calls from readers asking how I came up with my top five. It was pretty simple -- I culled out any camps that were not ACA accredited, then cut those that didn't offer financial aid or sibling discounts. I avoided highly specialized or overnight camps -- we had a separate article about those -- and I focused on the day camps that offered kids plenty of choices or interesting activity options. They may not be the highest-rated or otherwise "best" camps in Boston, but they're definitely among the most interesting.

February 10, 2008

Five Great Day Camps

By Lylah M. Alphonse

All are coed; call about extended days, discounts, and financial assistance.

HEALTHY COMBINATION The YMCA of Greater Boston has a wide selection of traditional day camps for kids ages 6 to 12. The Camp at the Ponkapoag Outdoor Center in the Blue Hills Reservation is run by the Charles River YMCA/Needham, and combines ropes and outdoor challenges with arts, crafts, and aquatics. Canton. $225-$300 per week. Weekly sessions run June 25-August 31. Seven campers per counselor. 781-444-6400 ext. 226;

MIX AND MATCH At Marcus Lewis Day Camp, kids can tailor their activities to match their interests, with Junior Discovery campers (grades K through 5) making decisions each day as a group and Teen Exploration campers (grades 6 through 10) choosing electives individually. Weekly themes add to the fun, and specialized camps (cooking, golf, and dance, among others) allow kids to really immerse themselves in their favorite activities. Devens. $474-$598 per week. Weekly sessions run June 23-August 15. Five campers per counselor. 978-929-9997;

GO NATURAL At the Drumlin Farm Summer Camp, run by Mass. Audubon, campers ages 4 to 17 get to explore the ins and outs of a real wildlife sanctuary and working farm, with plenty of chances for hands-on experience with farm animals and forest, field, and pond environments. Trip and travel programs are available for older kids. Lincoln. $300-$795 per session. One-week and two-week sessions run June 23-August 15. About 200 campers per session, divided by age. Five to seven campers per counselor. 781-259-2223;

FUN, IN GENERAL Beaver Summer Programs at the Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill are known for their highly specialized summer activities (circus camp, anyone?), but the General Camp also has plenty to offer. Younger campers (ages 3 to 5) get to play on equipment and fields scaled down to their size; older kids (6 to 12) can choose their own electives throughout the day. Chestnut Hill. $890 to $1,060 per session in the General Camp. Two-week sessions run June 23-August 15. About four campers per counselor. 617-738-2750;

FOR HORSE WHISPERERS 4-H Camp Marshall is tailor-made for the horse-crazy kid in your life. The Young Riders (for campers ages 5 to 7) and Saddle Up (ages 8 to 14) programs blend traditional camp activities with an intensive introduction to horsemanship and horseback riding. Not that into horses? They also have a more traditional (and less expensive) program. Spencer. Horse camps $405 per week, traditional day camp $275 per week. Weekly sessions July 7-August 15. Three to 12 campers per counselor (depending on program). 508-885-4891;

The hardest part of the story? Winnowing it down to just five. (No, I didn't include the camp my kids go to, even though they love it so much they get together with friends during the winter just to talk about summer camp. Why not? If I included it, everyone would send their kids there!)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Viva Makes A Mess

When I first saw the ad, in a post over at Get in the Car!, I thought it was a cool, retro snapshot. And then I took a closer look. (You can, too. Just click on it.) There’s something Rob and Laura Petrie about the whole thing, but the pots on the stove look kind of like the modern-day, hard-anodized cookware I love. The husband’s got that “casual Friday” thing going on, and the wife looks like maybe she just got home from work, in spite of the apron. The backsplash is kind of 1970s, but there’s no avocado- or goldenrod-enameled appliances in sight.

The ad pretty much flies in the face of everything a generation of women fought for. The mock journal entry clinches it: “Tuesday. Today I found the perfect paper towel! Viva is so soft! I used it to wipe sauce of Tom’s chin, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Is Viva really paper?”

Please pass the soma! As if we working moms weren’t stressed out enough, now there’s this resurgence of 1950s ideals to contend with.

I surfed on over to the Viva Towels website, to see if maybe it was some sort of a joke or a spoof. But it seems to be an actual ad campaign. In fact, I stumbled into The Viva Diva Cafe. “Enjoy great conversations, share ideas and meet other VIVA® Divas like you, who enjoy decorating, entertaining and doing special things for friends and family!” reads the intro.

The better a Diva you are, the more “status icons” you can earn. Yes, they call them “status icons.” Your status is denominated by jewels — from a small yellow chip to a six-sided ruby to the crown jewel itself, a large, animated purple sparkler.

I’m sure Viva is just trying to compete with Julie Edelman, the “Accidental Housewife,” whose “S.O.S. (Saving Our Santity)” tips appear on Club Mom and in radio spots for Clorox. And I’m sure that there are women out there for whom being able to lovingly spoonfeed and then wipe up after their goofily grinning husband is the hight of personal fulfillment. Call me a rebel, but I’m just not one of them.

The “Accidental Housewife” radio ad campaign irritates me, too, but not as much as the Viva print one. Aside from the fact that I just don’t understand how anyone can become a housewife by accident, at least Edelman admits that today’s housewife is a different woman than a generation ago. “She’s busy, and doesn’t have time to worry about perfection, but she still wants to maintain a healthy home along with her sanity,” Edelman says on the Clorox site.

Viva doesn’t seem to have gotten that message. “Host an ice cream social so everyone can get to know each other a little better,” one Diva suggests on the “Spread the Joy” section of the Viva site. “It might seem shallow, but improving your appearance by losing weight is one way to make youself more available socially,” another offers.

My husband thinks Viva is doing it on purpose, tounge-in-cheek — ruffling feathers and being un-PC. “How else are they going to get people to talk about paper towels?” he points out.

He may be right. But still, I can’t help but find the ads offensive.

So, am I taking the ad the wrong way? The right way? Playing right into the companies hands? I don't know. The only thing I do know is that you won't catch me with Viva in my shopping cart.

What's On TV? Guilt, mostly

There are days when I struggle with the work-life juggle, and the fact that my kids watch TV. Sometimes, more TV than I'd like. To wit:

One of the things I always tell other parents — especially other working moms who are struggling with their juggling of career and motherhood — is that they shouldn’t feel guilty for letting their little kids watch TV if they need to get their work done.

It’s something I really believe is OK. It’s something I do more often than I’d like. And it’s something that makes me feel like a total hypocrite because, half a lifetime ago, when I was a nanny, I never turned the TV on when the kids were around. Ever.

I was the uber-nanny, the one who took care of three or more kids at a time and kept them entertained without the Disney Channel for hours on end. Never mind that the Disney Channel didn’t exist back then. Even PBS was off limits. It was a matter of pride, sometimes, but more often than not it was because the parents I worked for didn’t want their kids staring at the TV. Sometimes, it was extremely hard — a winter trip to Florida comes to mind — but they were the parents, so their word was law.

Now, I’m the parent. And, while I still use some of the TV-free tricks I learned way back then, I’m just as apt to pop in a DVD of “The Backyardigans” and only turn it off when I realize, all of a sudden, that the kids have just watched four episodes in a row.

Adding to the guilt: The American Association of Pediatrics says that kids under the age of 2 watch too much television. Granted, mine aren’t getting four hours of tube time at a pop, but still. I know, I know — there are plenty of alternatives to watching TV (and some of them are here). Problem is, few of them — if any — are doable if you’re also trying to work on deadline.

So, what’s a working mom to do?

Find balance. Relax. Accept that real life isn’t always ideal. Get the work done.

When the TV is on, my kids are usually doing something else at the same time — playing with puzzles, drawing, flipping through books, terrorizing the dog, pretending to cook, “helping” me type. There’s a big difference between “Teletubbies” and “Cops.” They love listening to “The Playground” on WERS-FM but, unfortunately, that great children’s radio program isn’t on every day.

I remind myself that there are going to be times when I’ve got a huge project that has to be done because the bills have got to be paid. And, when those times come, my kids aren’t going to sustain any lasting damage from watching a bunch of “Dora the Explorer” episodes back-to-back(-to-back-to-back). I might — there are only so many times an adult can listen to “Backpack, Backpack … yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, delicioso!” without going insane. But my kids will be fine.