The Home We Live In

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By Aimee Tafreshi

Today was a momentous day. Today we closed on a house in Midland, Texas. Now, if you know anything about the housing market in Midland, you would know this is an enormous feat. But if you are not familiar with this area known as the Permian Basin, please let me fill you in. The rents here rival San Francisco’s, and it’s not because of the panoramic views of trash blowing along the highway or the smell of carbon emissions from the jacked up trucks clogging the roads. This flat and desert-like area in West Texas is in the midst of a huge oil boom, bringing workers in every day from places like Canada, Louisiana or in our case, Amelia Island, Florida.

Our family’s road to home ownership in Midland was a rocky one. The first hurdle was to sell our home in Florida. When we first listed our home for sale in the early summer, I assumed the house would sell in about a week. According to our realtor, our house was priced to sell, and we agreed with her assessment. When we bought our family home in 2013—the first home my husband and I had ever purchased—Florida’s real estate market was still recovering from the Great Recession. The house had been sitting as a spec home for about a year and was within our modest budget. After being a seasoned student of real estate prices in my hometown of Austin, we jumped on the purchase price and were newly minted homeowners.

The two-story, stucco home on Amelia Island sat in a quaint neighborhood of exactly three streets. The house with its porch and columns resembled a Craftsman style home with a Florida vibe. It was perfect for our then family of five—the updated kitchen opened up to the family room, which contained high ceilings and a sliding glass door to the patio and backyard. A separate living area greeted guests upon entry into the house, which later became a quiet spot to work, read a book on the couch or host a relative on the pull-out sofa. I jokingly referred to the front room as the “blue room,” with its soothing ocean-hued couch and abstract paintings decorating the walls.

Our master bedroom was situated downstairs, while the three secondary bedrooms were upstairs with a loft in the middle, which served as an additional living room for the kids. (This play area usually bought us a little more sleep in the morning pre-twins). When we moved into the home, it was the summer of 2013, and our youngest had just turned one. We also had a two-year-old son and rising kindergartener. We were in the toddler/young children years, and my husband Alex was about to start a grueling sea tour in the Navy. My daughter attended her first day of kindergarten at the local elementary school as we were moving in, and we found a great Mother’s Day Out program for the boys. The pristine beach and local YMCA were a short bike ride away.

We spent five years in that wonderful home, the most time I have ever spent in one house in my life. During that period, Alex had several months’ long deployments. We visited Disney World for the first time ever. We welcomed two rescue dogs to our family, Faith the German Shepherd and Dolly the Great Dane mix. Our kindergartner grew up into a rising fifth grader, with long limbs and glasses, but maintaining her red hair and creativity. And our youngest baby graduated from Pre-K (twice!) and was finally ready to begin his own kindergarten journey. In our last year in the house, we brought home boy/girl twins, the first babies of ours not born on Texas soil. Our oldest football-loving son was convinced they were destined to be Florida Gators. Our daughter helpfully suggested, “Let’s just tell them they were born in Texas.”

After five years in the same spot, we knew most neighbors and celebrated various birthdays and some holidays together. When the twins were newborns, they pitched in to help with driving the older kids and walking them to and from the bus stop. Our extended families were thousands of miles away, but we had created our very own village in Florida.

As we made the difficult decision for Alex to leave the submarine force after 12 years of service, I was torn between wanting to stay on Amelia Island or return home to Texas. He job hunted in both areas, as well as the Southeast, and I mentally prepared myself that the odds of staying on our little island were slim. On the occasional night out, filled with merriment and a little booze, I was fond of declaring, “I’m never leaving the island!” Many came to our little island for a slower way of life; few left it willingly.

As the final months elapsed, we tackled some fun things on what I thought of as my Florida bucket list. Alex surprised me with a trip to swim with the manatees at Crystal River for my fortieth birthday, an excursion I had coveted before I ever lived in the Sunshine State. My daughter and I explored the (man-made) tropical paradise Discovery Cove to celebrate her tenth birthday and swam with a dolphin. We never did make it to the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot, the Florida Keys or the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, which boasts live mermaid shows.

When we decided on a job offer in Midland, and the “For Sale” sign went up in the yard, I remember thinking that one day, this would be the house that we “used to live in.” We would drive by and say to the children, “Look, we used to live there.” My present was about to become my past, and the thought made me sad and nostalgic. Change is hard and also reminds us that our time on earth is fleeting and impermanent. During my evening walks with the dogs, I would take in the dense trees, circling hawks, lizards scampering on the sidewalks and honking geese dining on the field behind our fence. I know now that Midland does have some trees and nature but Florida is exploding with natural beauty.

When it was finally time to leave, our chaotic departure felt like a surreal break-up with little closure. A few days before vacating our home, we celebrated my son’s sixth birthday with my in-laws at their rented beach condo, and then the twins’ first birthday at our favorite Mexican restaurant where they always treated us like family. While the movers packed and loaded, we stayed at a VRBO property near the beach, where we walked on the shore for the last time. I wondered when I would walk on the beach again. I took in the constantly churning water, the soft sand, the thousands of little shells, the carefree feelings of my children. They had no idea what the future held. The innocence of children is perhaps a great coping mechanism. It is not their job to worry about moving logistics and real estate. They simply live in the moment, enjoying the experience only for what it’s worth.

We barely had time to say goodbye to our friends, neighbors or church, where we were baptized as adults. And our house hadn’t sold yet. Alex reassured me, when a family looks at our home, they will make an offer. The current crop of retirees scheduling showings didn’t appreciate the stairs or proximity to schools, but we knew a family would.

When we finally arrived in Midland after a very dramatic cross-country drive, involving an unexpected pit stop in New Orleans, we were fortunate to stay in a corporate rental, a new construction home in a booming neighborhood filled with young families following the smell of oil.

Fast forward to today, and we have now spent four months in the temporary house about half the size of our old one. We are all sharing rooms, and most of our worldly possessions sit in storage. A family of five finally checked out our house in Florida, and they jumped on it. From the looks of their Facebook posts (I’m not stalking them, I swear! We have a friend in common, so I happened upon it in my Newsfeed), they look ecstatic in their photos, holding up a picture of their new home, the house we used to live in.

And in the crazy real estate market they call Midland, we found a house of our own. After months of searching and losing out on listings, we were finally in a position to buy. As of today, we are the proud owners of a sprawling ranch style home in an established neighborhood with mature trees. In Florida, we took trees for granted; here, one is lucky to own a single tree; the newer neighborhoods boast beds of multi-colored pebbles. Walking through our new home over the past month to figure out tile backsplash and paint colors, I felt a sense of excitement and hope as I watched my now young toddlers walk briskly in circles around the house and shut themselves into bedrooms. The bigger kids excitedly picked out their new bedrooms and weighed in on wall colors. I noticed the Halloween and then Thanksgiving and now Christmas decorations adorning our future neighbors’ front lawns. Baby swings suspended from tree limbs dot the street.

I miss our curated village and house on Amelia Island. And I hope our old neighbors let us tag along to the annual Food & Wine Festival next year (hint, hint). But I’m ready to turn the Midland house into the home we live in.

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Daddy’s Birthday Disaster

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by Aimee Tafreshi

August is the worst month for a birthday. It’s hotter than hell. In most states, kids go back to school in August. Goodbye sleeping in, hello pre-dawn wake-ups. My younger sister sometimes showed up for the first day of school on her birthday. My mom usually had to delay her birthday party so they would be able to invite children from her class. If you have a child with an August birthday, you may have to grapple with the issue of “redshirting” him for kindergarten, or starting on time, making him the youngest in the class. My husband and I debated the August birthday/redshirt issue at length before we even had children. For various reasons, August is a month fraught with issues.

So it makes perfect sense that I would marry someone with a late August birthday. I am drawn to this punishing month for whatever reason. My husband has not been spared from the wrath of August. Many of his birthdays have been spent on a cold submarine in the middle of the ocean, but that circumstance could have happened during a more reasonable month. Two of his birthdays immediately followed the birth of our second son and boy/girl twins (all born in late July). During those postpartum times, I was self-sequestered at home in a permanent state of disheveledness and recovering from two tough c-sections. Luckily, my mother-in-law saved the day last year, buying thoughtful gifts, wrapping them beautifully, and picking up a quality cake from a great bakery. Despite the chaos of newborn twins, my husband Alex seemed to enjoy his celebration, especially with his mother visiting from afar. The day felt special and a brief respite from the pool we were drowning in daily, caring for newborn twins.

This year I had no excuses (well, other than two demanding 12-month-old babies). We had just moved cross country to Midland, Texas, and with the older children in school and the little ones in care while I worked remotely, I could venture outside the home, buy gifts and even balloons! This year would be the one to make up for the past birthday failures. We had only been in our new home about two weeks when I started buying presents I thought he would enjoy—Texas Longhorn fan gear—a car decal for his new truck, a Texas shirt, a ball cap for the field, a bottle of quality bourbon, a nice pair of Longhorn dress socks. I got a recommendation from a local for a quality bakery and placed my order for a birthday Bundt cake, something unique and new to try. This birthday would be one for the books!

The big day for my husband arrived, and I began to complete the final touches. I had the children sign (and decorate) a heartfelt card for their father, and I found a humorous one that seemed to match our current state of chaos. I picked up a bouquet of balloons from the store, a family tradition. I decided on a restaurant for dinner, which did not accept reservations, but I figured if we arrived early enough, we should be able to get a table, as it was mid-week.

The day trudged on, and finally it was time to celebrate. I could tell Alex liked the balloons, and the tidy array of tastefully decorated gift bags and cards looked festive on our kitchen table. We gathered up our large brood and called the restaurant to inquire about a potential wait. They informed us that there wasn’t currently a wait, and a large table was open. So far, so good!

We arrived at the dinner spot, a place we had been dying to try on advice of our realtor since arriving in West Texas. I could almost taste the tequila of the margarita in my mouth. We approached the hostess stand where we learned that there would now be a 30 to 40 minute wait. Apparently others had showed up in the last 15 minutes. Okay, that’s just Midland, we thought, and amiably took a seat in the warm glassed-in waiting area. The kids were holding up okay, some on their electronics, and we fed the babies some puffs. After about half an hour, I sauntered back over to the hostess stand, where a host told me that the wait would be at least another 30 to 45 minutes. “But we’ve already been waiting 40 minutes,” I protested lightly, “and I saw a six top table available.” The host informed me that the table must have been for someone else. “Is it because we have children with us?” I asked somewhat rhetorically. “I don’t know,” he responded, “I’m new.” Huh?? So you’re saying we may possibly never get a table because we have children in tow? Couldn’t they have told us that from the get go and saved us all a lot of time?

I marched back to the waiting area and informed Alex of the latest development. “We may never get a table,” I lamented, “They’re going to make us wait until we just give up!” Alex, not one to take things sitting down, returned to the new employee to discuss things further. He returned a few minutes later and abruptly said, “Let’s go.” Apparently he’d christened the new host with a few choice words, and the next time we visit the restaurant, Alex will need to wear a disguise for us to get a table.

Not willing to give up, we headed back to our car and pulled up Yelp. I found another Mexican restaurant with excellent reviews—all 5 star!—and we headed to our new destination. We drove through downtown, across the highway, and found ourselves next to a junkyard. And here our new dining location stood. “Oh wow, it’s a junkyard,” the kids exclaimed, either sarcastically or with genuine excitement, I’m not sure which. I hope this restaurant has a liquor license, I thought, not wanting a “wine-a-rita” style drink. “It looks small,” another helpful child chimed in.

We headed inside to a cute mom and pop type restaurant with red and white checked table cloths. It was charming in a kind of minimalist, Dollar Tree sort of way. A kind woman greeted us and directed us to our table, right under the window AC unit. She cranked it up to dispel the heavy heat surrounding us. Getting right to the important stuff, I asked if they served margaritas. “Oh no,” she said, crushing my soul, “we don’t sell alcohol.” I helpfully offered to Alex that we could buy margarita supplies on the way home from the drive through liquor store. “Well, we have a table and no wait!” I said cheerfully, “These ‘hole in the wall’ places are the best!” The nice lady brought menus with photos of food and no prices. I ordered the mole enchiladas, and they were honestly some of the tastiest I’d ever had. The mole was perfect and probably an old passed down family recipe. At the end of our meal, the waitress brought Alex a slice of cake, and we, and a few other patrons, joined in to sing Happy Birthday. Things were looking up!

After a satisfying meal, we gathered our belongings, and Alex went to pick up our baby boy, Rhett, from his high chair. Unfortunately Rhett was covered with a gooey brown substance, but it wasn’t chocolate. I’m not sure how it ended up all of over the front of his clothes, so we hoisted him up, held him at arm’s length, and made a mad dash for the car. With the junkyard as a fitting backdrop and the blazing hot sun melting us, we spent the next 15 minutes changing Rhett and cleaning him in the back of our car. We were exhausted and beat down. We couldn’t even muster the energy to hit up the drive through liquor store. We finally arrived home, and Alex collapsed onto the couch. He was too tired to eat cake or open presents. We would have to save them for tomorrow. “I’m sorry it was so terrible,” I told him, feeling awful that an evening with such good intentions and effort failed so miserably. I added, “My father always had a saying ‘When a day starts like this it’s all uphill from here.’” (A little gem from Zach Galifianakis in Due Date.)

The next day, we devoured the chocolate chip Bundt cake, and Alex opened up his Longhorn curated gifts and read the thoughtful cards. He seemed genuinely happy, and I didn’t even mind the cream cheese icing (too much). We laughed at the irony of the Facebook picture I had posted for his birthday of him wearing a sombrero and imbibing a huge margarita with a big grin on his face. “Everything’s bigger in Texas!” someone had commented. “Enjoy the margarita!” another had said. Well Facebook is a big fat liar. That huge margarita was consumed months ago in Florida! Alex has (half) joked before that he’s the lowest in priority on the totem pole—behind the kids and the dogs—but this super dad deserves a birthday for the books. I’m already planning next year’s. What could go wrong in Vegas?!

One Mom’s Return to the Work Force

By: Aimee Tafreshi

ID-100338823Like many moms today, I worked a full-time job when I gave birth to my first child. I remember how hard it was to leave my baby after my 12 weeks of maternity leave were up—a generous policy compared to many work places, yet meager compared to other parts of the world. I blinked back tears as I commuted to my office and felt a huge part of me left behind at home.

I also remember the day I packed up my office for the last time, a few weeks before my little girl’s second birthday. I would miss looking out my wall of windows to behold the Capitol and downtown Austin—I doubted I would ever score such a view again—but I looked forward to my freedom and more time with my growing toddler.

Back then, I was a single mom, sharing custody with my child’s father. I saw my daughter for two hours each weeknight after work and every other weekend. She lived with me, but the practice of law is a jealous mistress. The rest of her time was spent with my devoted, Spanish-speaking nanny or my child’s father. It was probably these circumstances that led me to walk away from the work force at the time, but only after I was engaged to someone able to provide financial support. Single parents have the first and foremost priority of providing a roof over a child’s head, food and health insurance; everything else is secondary.

Fast forward six years later, and I’m a mom of three, happily married and enjoying life as a freelance writer and Zumba instructor. And then life dealt me a broken foot, so teaching the latest Latin moves was out of the question. As I clomped around in my boot, I pondered my next move. I loved my free time with my kids, but in the back of my head I always wondered if I would return to the work force. I knew the longer I stayed out, the harder it would be to return. The corporate world could understand some time off to raise children—women seem to be given this latitude more than men—but how long of an absence was acceptable? Five years? Ten years? Six years had elapsed since my time at a law firm, and I decided it was time to dabble my feet in the water again.

While sidelined, I reactivated my bar license and had fun watching continuing legal education videos about white-collar crime. This may sound fairly boring, but as far as the law is concerned, this is exciting and interesting stuff. I spent a week’s worth of time applying for a few prosecutor positions with the Department of Justice. They happened to be hiring in a nearby big city, and those opportunities don’t pop up everyday. I have no prosecutorial experience, but being in the courtroom going after bad guys has always been a dream of mine. Of course, it may not be the job most compatible with balancing motherhood, but I would worry about those details later.

Fast forward a few months, and the feds hadn’t called yet. As I mentally prepared for my foot surgery, I periodically checked out the online job listings to see if anything fit my requirements and vice versa. Most legal jobs here are out of the question because I am not licensed to practice law in Florida, and there’s no way in heck I’m sitting for another bar exam. One day I saw a listing for a part-time job where I actually understood most of the responsibilities and seemed to meet their hiring criteria. I quickly shot them my resume and a hastily written cover letter, as I didn’t want to waste multiple hours on an application only to hear crickets in response. My surgery was coming up soon, but I figured it would be months until I’d hear a response; after all, the job posting was brand new.

Lo and behold, I received an email requesting a telephone interview. I was floored and realized I hadn’t interviewed for a job since 2006. The timing was interesting. I was scheduled to have surgery the very next day. After much thought, I brilliantly (or stupidly) set up the interview for the following morning, hours before my surgery. I didn’t want to risk fielding questions while under the influence of post-surgery pain meds. I would go through an interview sans caffeine (or anything), as I was about to undergo general anesthesia. I’ve never experienced a job interview without adequate hydration or caffeine coursing through my veins. I told myself this was all mental and that I could do it. I was so nervous about the interview that the impending procedure became an afterthought.

The phone call seemed to go okay. I didn’t really think the interviewer was too impressed, and I figured I did not get the position. To my surprise, I received a job offer at the end of the week, as I floated around in my post-surgery stupor, non-weight-bearing for nearly one month. I was excited but also very scared. I was returning to the world of deadlines, responsibility beyond my family and the billable hour.

Two months into the job, and it is the perfect fit for my life. I work remotely and bill about 30 hours per week. The company is flexible and doesn’t micromanage my time. I can go to work in pajamas with greasy hair and don’t have a commute. The hardest part is the aspect I struggled with years ago—mommy guilt. When I got the gig, we scrambled and had to put all of the kids in full-time care, not an easy feat at times during the summer. Luckily, there were a few day camp options, and my youngest son’s school goes year round and caters to working parents.

A part of me felt guilty at first. As my foot healed and I regained my ability to walk, and could finally fit my deflating big foot in flip-flops, I wondered, shouldn’t I be hauling the kids every day to some cool summer location, like the beach, pool, or the museum? I know the days are long and the years are short, and I don’t take a day for granted with them. But then I thought back to my days as a single, working mother, and I remembered what I did back then to cope.

When I came home from work, I completely switched into “at home” mode. My attention was on my daughter for those two hours before her bedtime. My nanny tried to bathe her but I insisted on having that duty, as I needed every minute with her. I treasured reading to her each night as we rocked. I remember waking up most Saturday mornings to attend a parent and me music class, as we often rushed home afterwards so her father could pick her up for his time.

When you work, you don’t necessarily miss out. You just have to become more present when you are with your kids. Ask them about their day, look them in the eyes, engage them in conversation, put down your phone. For working parents, most of these things are no-brainers because you can’t wait to see your little ones at the end of each day. You are tired, but you find that extra reserve of energy and enthusiasm to share with your greatest work in life: your children.

You also become a weekend warrior. When you have a blank canvas of a week in front of you, Saturday and Sunday don’t seem as crucial to fill with meaningful time. As a family, I feel like we have really lived life lately. We’ve been to the beach, the pool, the zoo, church, brunch, the movies . . . we are exhausted come Sunday evening, and sometimes the solitude on Monday morning after the kids are dropped off is a welcome one.

Whether you work outside of the home, at home or stay at home with your little ones, I can say there is no easy path. You can only choose the best option for your family, and make the most of your precious time together.

Aimee Tafreshi is a freelance writer and attorney who also contributes to Nameberry.com and her own blog once in a blue moon, aimeetafreshi.com. She is also a mother and professional chauffeur to three spirited, young children.

Image courtesy of franky242 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Swimming…

By: Aimee Tafreshi

FullSizeRender (1)“How will the suffering end?” inquired the earnest man standing at my doorstep.  I chuckled, surprised by the question, and replied, “Well, I might be the right person to ask.” He looked down at my bandaged foot, assessing my knee scooter, and good-naturedly nodded his head. Five minutes earlier, I was parked on the couch, my recovering foot propped up on the ottoman, when I heard a knock on my front door. It must be the neighbors across the street stopping to say goodbye, as I had noticed their moving van earlier. Let’s hope it’s not the unscrupulous tree trimmers “terrorizing” our neighborhood, charging too high prices for shoddy work. Ahh, the perils of suburban life.

This better be good, I thought, as I hoisted myself onto the wheeled apparatus and propelled myself to the front door, accompanied by my protector, Faith the German Shepherd. I peered outside and saw a nice-looking family pushing a baby in a stroller. I hesitantly cracked open the door, Faith making her presence known in case of any mischief, and a man with kind eyes began to speak. After polite hellos, the man launched into his pitch. “How will the suffering end?” he began. Is this a rhetorical question? I wondered. I was beginning to formulate a well-thought out answer, and then stopped myself. “Now what are you selling here?” I asked. He responded that he wasn’t selling anything, so I proceeded to answer the stranger’s question as the smiling baby looked at me. “Faith, hope, determination, patience, resilience, a positive attitude.” He nodded his head with approval, and then chimed in, “Suffering will end through God’s Kingdom,” handing me a brochure for the local Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I smiled at the man and wished them a good afternoon, as his wife complemented me on our potted plants before leaving. In the past, I would have met a solicitor at my door with an eye roll or had simply ignored the knocks, but I found the visit well-timed and perhaps a sign to keep pressing on. Now, I was not about to go join the local Jehovah’s Witness chapter, although I have to admire them for going door to door these days to spread their word, as they are most often greeted with disdain or indifference. But I liked that this encounter forced me to verbalize how I would make it through this chapter of my life.

Earlier that week, I underwent surgery on my right foot to remove a broken bone that had essentially “died” as well. I had been temporarily disabled since early December, when the stressed bone finally fractured. Before the big surgery day, I went into “nesting” mode and took on the mammoth task of decluttering and organizing my daughter’s bedroom. She is a Stage 1 hoarder (like her mother), so this project took about two solid afternoons of focused work. My oldest son was pretty distraught that I didn’t purge his room of old toys before I was rendered useless.

The weekend before the procedure, we celebrated my daughter’s eighth birthday with an outdoor pool party. I clomped around the pool deck on my lame foot in my bulky black boot, disregarding the pain. The following Monday I chaperoned my daughter’s second grade class on a boat excursion to study the local saltwater specimens. We marveled at the multiple dolphin pods we encountered, taking in the majestic creatures feeding, playing and rolling upside down on the water’s surface. I noticed how the sea breeze felt gently grazing my face. I was happy to embrace these moments before the coming weeks of immobility when my usually active life would be on freeze frame.

Post-surgery, I am non-weight bearing for at least four weeks and cannot yet drive a car.  I have fears that when I do put my foot down to take that first step, I will feel immense pain or will not be able to stride normally. My right foot feels weird, like I am missing something. My present finds me lying in bed or sitting on my new perch, the sofa, streaming endless hours of whatever happens to be on TV. I know a lot of us moms dream of being couch potatoes—I have fantasized about watching marathons of HGTV episodes or Dateline while doing nothing else. Well, the dream has turned to reality, and let me tell you, eternal couch-potatoeing is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The first day or so post-surgery, I felt like a newborn baby, alternating between alertness for a few hours followed by sleep, repeated again and again. As the pain lessened and I transitioned off the strong meds to good old Advil, I resolved to remain awake during daytime hours. Five days post-surgery, I have evolved to wearing contacts, getting dressed and maintaining a clean face. I still can’t get the incision wet, so showers are out of the question, but I successfully took a bath a few nights ago, while propping my foot out of the water. I have also become quite adept at knee-scooting on my wheeled device or utilizing the crutches in tight spaces, like the bathroom.

I know I am not the only mother who has faced a health challenge like this. Many parents face more serious health battles, like cancer. I am fortunate because my foot is expected to heal, so daydreams of biking to the beach on a new shiny beach cruiser with a quaint woven basket and walking my dogs around the neighborhood keep me going. Some parents have no guarantee of their return to normal activities, and some fight the illness of their lives. There are many role models to look to when one gets down in the dumps about their current state of health. I think about amputees who returned from war-torn countries, patients undergoing grueling chemotherapy and elite college athletes facing career-ending injuries. If people facing those obstacles can keep their chin up and cling onto hope, then I can feel grateful and optimistic that this temporary hiccup will eventually heal.

There isn’t much I can do without use of my foot, along with strict doctor’s orders to lay low these first few weeks post-surgery. Sometimes sitting in a cool, dark house gets a tad depressing, and House Hunters becomes a little mundane. Yesterday I decided I needed to hobble outside and relax on a lounge chair to feel the warmth of the sun and enjoy our re-mulched garden and blooming spring flowers. My husband and I sat on the deck for nearly an hour as our son seesawed and rode his tricycle. I noticed the little things, like the yellow butterfly that constantly flits around our garden, the cloudless and perfect blue sky, and the paths of the small airplanes dotting the ether. My life might be on pause, but I still need to find and appreciate meaning and beauty in each day we are given here. And also remember to hold onto faith, hope, determination, patience, resilience and a positive attitude.

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has also contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com.

Reward Charts—From Candy to Corvettes

TafreshiFamily-Sept2015_045By: Aimee Tafreshi

I hazily remember lying in the hospital bed holding my third child, while my 21-month-old son and four-year-old daughter waited at home. The nurse gave me some sage advice about paying attention to the eldest children while caring for a newborn. “Do a responsibility chart for the four-year-old,” she advised. She explained that children that age did well with a sticker chart as positive reinforcement. Knowing I would need maximum resources in my arsenal with three small children, I took the wise nurse’s advice to heart.

Soon after, I ordered a personalized, fancy responsibility chart for my daughter with cutely illustrated tasks or goals on Velcro labels. Examples of such positively reinforced behaviors included “Eat My Veggies,” “Try Not To Whine” (nearly impossible!), and “Say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You.’” For parents facing other issues, the kit included blank labels for any other problem areas. We immediately wrote “Listen!” on a blank form. It’s shocking this behavior did not come standard on the chart. We labeled another one “Wildcard” to address any random behaviors that popped up.

At the end of the day, my husband or I would go through the five responsibilities of the week with our daughter, rewarding a gold star for achieving one, or withholding the coveted star if her behavior fell short. Every Sunday, we set a goal for a certain number of stars required to earn the weekly reward. At the beginning of each new week, we jointly decided on a reasonable reward with our daughter’s input. Examples of incentives that came standard with the kit included “Go to a movie or rent a DVD” (easy enough), “Go out for a treat” (another favorite), “A new book” (double bonus, encouraging reading), or “A new pet” (Are you *$%#@*% kidding me?!). Needless to say, we didn’t utilize the new pet option.

Not surprisingly, listening, whining and using good manners were the most difficult stars to earn. We would set the amount of stars needed to earn a reward high enough to require consistently good behavior but reasonable enough to allow occasional slip-ups and off days. Though not perfect, the chart seemed to encourage greater awareness of desired behaviors and nudge our daughter toward picking up her toys or finishing her portion of veggies.

Eventually, our middle child reached the ripe old age of four, and we decided a star chart might be just the ticket to get him in line. His goals overlapped somewhat with our daughter’s but he had some unique objectives as well, like “Don’t use bad language,” a necessity for his potty mouth. A write-in option included “Wipe yourself.” I’m not sure why the star chart makers didn’t include that personal hygiene milestone.

Like our daughter, whining tripped him up often, and he frequently stumbled on “showing respect.” However, he beamed with pride at the end of each week when he usually managed to achieve his goal, and the chart did encourage him to pick up his toys and even the messes made by his little brother.

Creating and maintaining a star chart week-to-week does take a commitment on the part of the parents, and sometimes life gets busy, and the chart falls by the wayside. Toward the end of last year, when my husband became insanely busy at work, the charts entered into a state of neglect. He eventually began traveling for his job, and I didn’t have the time or energy to focus on this extra responsibility. I felt like I deserved a gold star for keeping everyone clothed, fed, alive and relatively clean.

With my husband’s absence, the natives became unruly, knowing they could take advantage of their “good cop” mom. If I was going to survive solo parenting three wild children, I needed to bring in the big guns. I was going to create the mother of all responsibility charts. There was nothing fancy about it—no monogrammed names—all I required was a piece of plain white paper, a Sharpie (different colors if I was feeling creative), a piece of tape, a plastic bucket and a bunch of cheap crap from China. With that in mind, I promptly headed to the local dollar store to buy up their gadgets, trinkets and other goodies to stuff into the bucket (also acquired for a dollar).

Any non-crafty mom can put together this reward chart. Simply write the days of the week across the top row (abbreviate if you are feeling especially lazy), and write in your children’s names or initials along the left-hand side. Create a column for each day and a row for each child, and you are set. This is not a complex chart. I give a single sticker out at the end of each day per child based on the totality of the day’s behaviors. There is no assessing different elements or types of conduct. Bottom-line: was Junior a helper or a huge butthead? Just go with your gut on these determinations.

For a good day, the child will get a sticker of my choosing. Have fun with it—I used St. Patrick’s Day stickers in March. When I run out of stickers, I take my trusty Sharpie and draw on a lopsided looking smiley face. For the child who fails to earn a sticker? He is either left with a blank square for the day, or if I’m having fun, a big diagonal line through the day, or a dramatic sad face.

The chart also ingeniously plays on the children’s natural competiveness with each other. The child with the most stickers will get to draw out of the coveted prize bucket first. Since no reward is alike, there is an incentive to earn the most stickers and choose the first prize. For children tying in their number of smiley faces, we follow a system similar to how college football conferences decide who goes to their championship game. It’s super straightforward and easy to apply our rules. Basically, if you drew first last week, your sibling will draw first this week. Easy peasy!

The appeal of my prize bucket is its immediacy and tangible nature—the children see the potential rewards of their hard work dangling in their faces everyday. So the reward is not some abstract, to-be-determined prize in the stratosphere.

Recently, my daughter wrote down some suggestions for prizes I might purchase for the prize bucket. Her handwritten list went something like this: “makeup to[o],” “I like white tictacs,” “Siance books” (I hope she means “science” and not “séance”), “bath toys,” “stuffed animals” (you can’t ever have enough stuffed animals), and “peppermint ‘gumb’ that says long lasting ‘gumb.’” I appreciated her specific instructions. Mom needs all the help she can get!

Looking down the road, my daughter helpfully brainstormed a list of rewards for the future, things that might entice my children to behave when they are teenagers. The list read as follows, like a ransom note: “$200,” “Birds from Petco,” “our own phone,” “our own car,” and finally, a “trampoline.”

I’m now thinking these reward charts may have an expiration date. Otherwise the responsibilities might need to include a well-paying full-time job.

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has also contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com.