By Franklyn Kimball • September 27, 2010•Writers in Residence
This final collection of parables covers the waterfront from road trips to youth sports to dealing with uber-parents and other strange creatures you’ll meet along the highway of life. After twenty four years of being a parent I know that I learn more from those who I admire than I learn on my own. Feel free to pass along your lessons learned whether they’re profound, light- hearted, or provocative.
Do things with kids when they are ready to do them. Parents who take children to Disney World when they are two years old are hereby warned - the kids will go into Disney overload, you’ll sweat standing in line, and someone will have a melt down somewhere between Dumbo and Goofy’s Barnstormer. There’s a saying in our family called “Disney Butt” which describes the emotional reaction to too much activity on a vacation day. It’s contagious and can wipe out an entire family in the time it takes to stand in line for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Wait until they’re 5 or 6 years old. Children will not die or fail to pass first grade if they eat Disney junk food for a week on vacation. Skip the educational part of Epcot. Your kids will thank you. Your 3-5 year old won’t remember the trip and the amount of stress and chaos is almost beyond comprehension.
Allow yourself to be a kid. First, it could restore your soul. Second, your kids will find it endlessly amusing. Third, getting outside the box of professional employment from time to time will make you a more interesting human being - to your family and your friends. Roll around on the floor with the dogs and kids - chase frisbees at a park - go down a slide - ride Dumbo - eat chocolate chip pancakes, corn dogs, or cotton candy at a county fair.
Take a road trip. In our fast-paced society most travel is by jet. But sometimes a great road trip can be a tremendous amount of fun. In 1999, when the kids were 15 and 9, we drove from Chicago to Wyoming. To this day we talk about the trip. Matthew got to practice his freeway driving. We saw thousands of motorcycles on their way to the massive Sturgis Rally in South Dakota. Temperatures ranged from 55 to 105 in one day. We visited the Doll House Museum, Laura Ingall Wilder’s home, the legendary Wahl Drugs, Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, and pretty much everything touristy in between. A Pizza Hut somewhere near Gillette Wyoming still owes us two orders of garlic bread. We even dodged a night time tornado in Minnesota on the drive back. Our kids have great memories of driving to Topeka to visit grandparents and waving at truck drivers to get them to blow their horns. Simple. Fun. Memorable.
The Morning Adventure Club. Every city is full of fun things to do with toddlers. Among my favorites from when Matt and Shannon were toddlers. Load the youngest into her stroller and take her out on early morning walk with Dad. The journey and destination aren’t that important - letting Mom sleep in an extra two hours can be a life changing experience for the family. Yes I know they didn’t make their doughnuts and the sanitation wasn’t exemplary but the now closed Demon Dogs underneath the Fullerton El Stop was the site of dozens of great Saturday and Sunday morning adventures. Driving with the sunroof open down Lower Wacker Drive early in the morning. For some reason the kids thought this was high adventure. There’s no great life lesson here - kids just enjoy doing things with parents - and even the mundane can be exciting when everyone’s in the right state of mind.
You May contract C.A.P.E.S. No this isn’t something you get at a Batman dress up convention. It’s Chronic Adult Perpetual Exhaustion Syndrome. Linda explained becoming a parent this way “You’re about to be hit by a truck you cannot see.” The time you spend, the unpredictable schedule, the change in the stress of life, the emergencies and the day to day events all combine to consume your energy in way that you cannot possibly imagine. No matter how energetic you are, no matter how fit, no matter how charming and resilient you will experience a level of confusion and aching exhaustion that cannot be described to those who have not experienced the feeling.
The toughest guy I ever knew earned the Distinguished Flying Cross three times while flying as a Marine in the Second World War. His Marines called him Major. We called him Dad. But I know that he had his hands full with three boys and one girl on his hands back in the 1950's. As Richard Harding put it in 1885 “ The Marines had landed.” But the situation was not always “well in hand.” How tired was he raising four kids in the fifties? How did he and my mom endure several recessions and lost jobs? It’s something I wish I’d discussed with him - but we lost both parents to cancer in the 1970‘s. I do know that he had his repertoire of fun things to do with kids - his legendary burnt hash browns for breakfast, sometimes cooked over an open fire - I still make hash browns two or three times a month (the best ones are made with sweet potatoes and tossed with bacon and caramelized onions). He would make “Marine Eggs” which were scrambled eggs tossed with hot dogs (an ancestor of many brunch items now made in trendy restaurants with andouille). He also loved brussels sprouts, cauliflower, fried spam, and lima beans. Sorry Dad, our kids hate them as much as I did. We wandered around with him when we were 3-10 ‘helping’ with painting, learning to use tools, rotate tires, change the oil on a car, and doing all kinds of stuff around the house. Fast forward thirty some years and our kids are their own help desks on technology, love to cook, and are quite independent and self reliant fixing things in their homes. I think my Dad had a plan in mind.
In 1990 when Shannon was less than 1 - we’d had several nights of interrupted sleep. I felt disoriented, painfully exhausted and basically too tired to sleep. So it’s 5 a.m. and I might as well go to the office. Once I sit down at my desk, my eyelids hurt, my head throbbed, I was sweating bullets and felt like I’d lived for a week at the drive through at Taco Bell. And I felt the overwhelming desire to sleep. Yes all of this passes as you get adjusted and the kids grow up but it’s unsettling at the time - particularly for ambitions young professionals accustomed to being the master of their universe. Any parent who says they haven’t suffered from a few episodes of CAPES hasn’t been working hard enough.
Cities are full of uber parents who will get obsessed by an issue. Whether it is a brand of stroller, theories about parenting, a pre-school, types of food, you name it. Stay in your Phil Jackson zen zone, smile, and follow your own instincts. Kids don’t come with an owner’s manual but your instincts trump the Ubers. There’s a fascinating amount of one-upsmanship among parents about almost everything you can imagine. You’ll get unsolicited advice about almost anything from people you don’t know. You’ll field “suggestions” on almost everything you do from friends, family, and people you’ve never met before. This begins when you’re four months pregnant and people feel they have a constitutional right to touch you without your permission.
Small children are fast and impulsive. Kids will do things just for fun that will try your patience. Matthew fed chocolate chip muffins into the slot on a VCR in 1987 when VCR’s were only somewhat less expensive than a Volvo. He found this amusing - but not as funny as when he took Linda’s contact lenses threw them in the toilet, flushed, and said “bye bye contacts.” At least 3.25 times a year a child will drop a glass bottle of ketchup on the floor of a restaurant or spill it on you - probably both. Infants are incredibly quick when they crawl - as stealthy as a Recon Marine hitting the beach. The only thing faster is a young golden retriever launched in mid air in search of a turkey sandwich. I found that Matt could derive as much excitement from taking the trash to our high rise garbage chute and saying “bye bye garbage.” It’s a guy thing.
Your sense of humor is your best weapon against all crises, foreign and domestic. Parenting is fun and exhausting, unpredictable and confusing, challenging and fun, and sometimes it is just plain hard. But even in the hardest moments there are things that kids will do that will make you smile. Even during the toughest moments of your career fending off impossible deadlines, challenging superiors, and tremendous stress the eternal optimism of a child will improve an otherwise difficult day.
You will make mistakes. Not big ones, but you will make them. That’s part of being a parent. But your kids will have unqualified love for you - even when they’re tired, cranky, out of sorts, scared, or perish the thought - teenagers. I look back at my parents and I know they were not perfect but I also know how hard they worked at it - and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to have had 4 little ones simultaneously on a limited income in the 1950's and 1960's.
Cabernet and conversation cure many of the world’s toughest problems or at least help to preserve the linkage between parents. Be willing to say you’re confused, exhausted, upset, worn out or that you just need a break for an hour, a day, or a week. Sometimes the focus is so much on kids that couples begin to lose track of what it was that brought them together. It can be tea, Heineken, or a cup of coffee - but taking the time to reconnect is one of the most important thing to do when you’re launching the Normandy invasion of raising a child. We started a Friday tradition in 1987 called Late Adult Romantic Dinner that continues today. It can take 2 hours to make dinner and 2 hours to enjoy it and discuss the great issues of the week. What’s on the menu this Friday? Call me by 3 on Friday afternoon and I’ll be pleased to discuss the options.
Get great child care. There are many solutions to the child care challenge but it is one of the most important decisions you will make. I’m not a big fan of au pairs because:
- they can’t work overtime under federal law
- they leave after a year so you have to get a new one
- and many are in the U.S. to “have fun”.
Some have little interest in or aptitude for child care. Fancy name. Bad concept. There are many options available but invest more time in this decision than any other decision that you make. The relationship with your child care person is one of the most important in your life. And if they work for you for a long time it will make a tremendous difference for you and your children. The best present I ever gave to Linda was hiring college kids who arrived Saturday at noon and stayed until Sunday mid-day - which allowed us to have some semblance of normalcy on Saturday afternoon, go out to dinner on Saturday night, and sleep in on Sunday morning. Most of you live within 3-5 miles of a college with well adjusted students who are eager to work.
Ignore weird advice. You’ll get a carload of poor advice from family members, casual friends, parents at kid events, and people you have never met who will walk up to you at the grocery or mall and pass along their tales of woe. Much of it, though in theory well-intended, is obnoxious, intrusive, inappropriate, and simple-minded. Smile nod and ignore. It’s an important habit to cultivate. Speaking of poor advice - I could not believe an article in the San Francisco Chronicle trumpeting the virtues of raising your baby without using diapers.
Lawyers-parents can be “challenging.” For 11 years I spent every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning in the Fall coaching youth football - teams of 8-10 fifth and sixth graders playing flag football on a 70 yard field at Waveland Park just off Lake Michigan. Absolutely one of the best experiences of my life. But every year among the two dozen or so parents and step parents there would be a couple who presented “special issues.” One fall, a boy joined our team - he was big for his age but not athletic and completely unfamiliar with and disinterested in football. I think he was pushed by his parents to be on the team. The dad never came to games. After our second game I get a 300 word e-mail from his Mom complaining that I’d placed her son at tackle on offense and defense and including a lengthy diatribe about how this was unfair, inappropriate, unwise, and probably un-American to boot. My blood pressure rose with every sentence. My children weren’t on this team - I was doing this for the love of the game. I put him at tackle because he was big, strong, but had no ball handling skills, and didn’t know the rules of the game (have you seen Blind Side? - I’m no Sandra Bullock but she was a great football parent). He wasn’t going to be at wide out or quarterback. The lawyer in me was tempted to write her a 2,000 word response. Instead, I wrote something more brief:
Dear Mrs. X. Thank you for your note. Your application to be assistant coach has been granted. Practice is every Friday from 4-6 and games are Saturday morning from 10-Noon at Waveland. Best regards. Coach Kimball.
This did not shut Mrs. X down. Her next e-mail explained that she was “a partner at a major national law firm and can not take time to come to practices.” In the words of my good friend Forest Gump, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.” If you ever meet anyone who self-identifies as a partner with a “minor national law firm” - let me know. Id love to meet them.
Some parents will ask you weird questions when you’re a lawyer. In the Fall of 2001 - a tough time for all Americans - a mom of one of my 5th grade football players learned that I was a lawyer and called me because she was convinced that terrorists were sending her anthrax-tampered mail to her apartment in downtown Chicago. She wanted to know what I could do about this. I suggested that she discuss this with her family and if she was actually concerned that she should contact the FBI or the U.S. Postal Police. Not good enough. The spouse wasn’t buying into the concept and she didn’t trust U.S. law enforcement - but she was very interested in me going through some of her mail. I declined the honor.
Website accolades do not reflect reality. Oceans of electrons and ink are spent by professional firms trumpeting their commitment to families. Some of this praise is deserved. Much of it is not. The most profitable professional firms in the nation are by their nature the most demanding. They exist to serve their clients and to be profitable for the partners as the owners of the business. At a practical level their commitment to families while not manufactured is subordinated to client service and profitability. Yet business and law school students struggle to find the firms that are the “best” at advancing women and protecting family priorities. Not a month passes without a magazine, blog, or book purporting to rank or rate firms. In my opinion the methodology of most of these surveys is specious. Approach with caution knowing that the vast majority of the solution to the balance of life is in your hands - it will not be delivered to you by your employer.
Conclusions. It’s been a wonderful journey. Our son Matt graduated from law school in 2009 and is now a lawyer for the Chicago Bears. We talked with Matt at endless dinners from the time he was literally 5 or 6 about his dream to work for a professional sports team. The odds of him fulfilling his dream seemed long; the number of positions in the field for entry level lawyers is not high. But Matt was determined to make it work. He played baseball in high school and college, had a sports talk radio show, wrote articles for the school newspaper and joined and then ran his law school’s Sports Law Society. Beginning in his 1L year he reached out to general managers, general counsels and owners of major league teams nationally — he knew none of them—and this effort resulted in an internship with the Chicago Bears for two winters in law school. He continued to intern for them after graduation during the year when leading Chicago firms deferred their graduates. Recently the Bears asked him to join their law department full time.
Shannon’s a junior at McGill in Montreal, is the features editor for the McGill Tribune (her columns are funnier than her dad’s), and runs farther in a week than most adults run in a year. She has a laser like focus on her educational and career path and it includes choices and options which I never had and never considered. But I know that this young woman who taught us that she was old enough to walk to the Lincoln Park Market and head to Poland at 11 is now old enough to identify, chase, and enjoy her dreams. It’s one of the highest privileges I’ve ever had to be her Dad.
As for our dogs, the legendary Honey and Sandy passed away after 14 wonderful years and we’re planning for the arrival of Dakota, the next “largest golden retriever in captivity.” Will we add a second puppy a year or two later? Will Michigan head to the BCS Championship game in 2013? I’m guessing yes as to both questions. I wish each of you as much or more fun and happiness in your journey as a parent. And, if you’d like to share your own anecdotes or reactions, please send them along - but I won’t be available to respond on Saturday afternoons in the Fall.