I don’t know how I do it, either

So it’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything here, and I apologize.

I’d like to blame it on my studies or my internship or some sort of minor yet still serious illness or the Greek economic crisis, but alas. I can only blame it on this:

This is the cake I made for Maggie's birthday. It took a crazy long time.

…and this…

Tom wanted a soccer ball on his birthday cake

…and this…

I stayed up until 1 a.m. making cake pops for Tom's family birthday party.

And since I am currently learning the ways of behavioral therapy, I will tell you that these are not merely symbols of fantastic birthday celebrations. Nay, these are signs of my overcompensation.

I’ve been down this road before, my friends.

Many, many moons ago, I was a frenetically working young mother of two. My job often required long hours and, occasionally, travel. My supportive spouse traveled, but not as much as he does these days. And he picked up a lot of my slack, cooking dinner, getting the kiddos from daycare, folding laundry.

I was still a reporter chasing big stories, and my days never were predictable. So the hubs was there when I wasn’t.

But on the days I was around, hoo boy. I was uber mom, psycho holiday decorator, party planner extraordinaire.

I don’t mean to brag, but my birthday parties were legendary. And that’s not because I rented a moon walk or a clown or a magician. That’s amateur stuff.

There was no way I was subletting my parental duties to anyone else to ensure my kids had the best birthdays ever, so I did everything myself. If there was a clown making balloon animals, buddy, then that was either me, my husband or some gullible relative of ours wearing the red nose.

Take Joe’s fourth birthday party. He loved pirates back then. L-O-V-E-D them. Way before Jack Sparrow arrived on the scene, Joe was sporting eye patches and turning sticks into hooks. So, as a faithful reader of every parenting magazine under the sun, I decided to throw the biggest and best pirate bash EVAH.

U.S.Toy has an insane amount of pirate decorations, by the way. And you also can order just about anything pirate-themed from Party Express.

And did you know you can make hand hooks out of two-liter plastic bottles and plastic hangers? I hoarded those items for weeks to make enough so the 20 or so kids we invited could take them home as party favors.

We gave every kid a pirate tattoo (temporary, of course,) and hung a piñata from the swing set. We commissioned my husband’s Uncle Pat, an architect, to be in charge of the balloon swords, a job he took to heart.

The only glitch: The cake. I had attempted to draw freehand a Jolly Roger. Big mistake. I should have sculpted something out of fondant.

Maggie’s party that year featured butterflies, her favorite bug at the time. Everyone got gossamer wings, and I made the most beautiful cake with a pastoral butterfly scene on it.

The next year, we threw Joe a cowboy-themed party at a cousin’s rural house and hosted a chuck wagon dinner (all homemade, of course.) That year Maggie had a princess dress-up party, with dress-up clothes supplied by yours truly and a cake that looked like a pink castle (also made by yours truly.)

Then I quit my job in 2001, and the birthday parties became less elaborate. Oh sure, my cakes improved, but I acquiesced to outside venues for the actual parties. I justified that because I spent almost every waking hour with the kids. I needed a break, you know?

Well, this year things have changed. I’m gone all day three days a week, either at my 16-hour-a-week internship (for credit hours) or at the university, taking back-to-back classes. The laundry is piling up. The old dogs have developed bladder infections because I’m not there to let them out as much. I’ve missed a few field trips. I still haven’t made relish out of the pounds and pounds of zucchini I chopped up and froze in July.

But the crazy birthday overcompensating is back. Hence the Perry the Platypus cake, the soccer ball cake, the cake pops.

I just can’t stop myself.

It’s funny, because the youngest kiddo wasn’t even around in the days when I made homemade yogurt pops to have on hand and handmade Christmas presents for my kids and my nieces and nephews. He’s never really seen this side of me.

But a month or so ago, when trailers for “I Don’t Know How She Does It” were all over the TV, Tom watched one and then looked at me.

“The lady in that movie could be you, Mom,” he said.

And he wasn’t telling me I look like Sarah Jessica Parker, either.

Touched by tragedy

For the past week, I’ve cried at the drop of a hat.

I was blaming it on hormones until I took a minute to analyze my triggers, and it was a no-brainer: the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

As the anniversary drew near last week, news shows focused more and more programming on the national tragedy and its aftermath. Newsweek and Time wrote retrospectives and found survivors to interview. Morning news programs tracked down the children of those killed and did “where-are-they-now” segments. I teared up constantly.

But on Friday, after watching yet another segment, I choked up as I began talking about that day a decade ago to my 8-year-old son as he ate his Raisin Bran. I told him how fearful I was, how alone I felt as his dad left town that day on a business trip, how I didn’t know whether to run to the school to pluck my kindergartener from class or leave him there.

And then my youngest asked me a probing, thoughtful question: “Why were you so scared that day, Mom?” Tom asked. “You weren’t in New York or Washington, D.C.”

He was right. I was in the heart of the Midwest, far from the blazing buildings and blinding smoke and sirens. I didn’t know one single person killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or the crash of the airliner over Pennsylvania.  Why was I scared that day? And why am I so emotional now?

I think I know. The world changed forever that day, and I knew as I watched the Today show and saw the second plane fly into the World Trade Center that life would never be the same. And it wasn’t just because the United States had lost its naiveté or whatever.

That beautiful September day marked the end of a rough six months of my life.

In March that year, I’d left my full-time job as an education reporter at The Kansas City Star to become a free-lance writer and stay-at-home mom. It wasn’t a move I’d been dying to make but one I felt forced into by an inflexible working environment. I left a job I loved, one I felt I was perfectly suited to, the kind of job I’d dreamed about when I was a kid. Just up and left it.

I knew in my heart I was doing the right thing, spending more time with my kids, but for six months I grieved my working life as I adjusted to extreme 24/7 parenting. (Not that working moms aren’t 24/7 parents – I always hated when people referred to themselves as “full-time” moms.  I’ve always been a full-time mom. But when I worked outside the home, I had hours during the day when my children were cared for by someone else and I was a person who did good work that was respected by the outside world.) A stay-at-home mom doesn’t get much positive feedback – the reward comes years later. And that takes a little adjusting to, I found.

So that day in September 2011, I’d just dropped off our oldest child at kindergarten. He was barely 5 and had been in school all of three weeks or so.

My daughter, who was 4, and I were getting ready to leave for the first Kindermusik class of the semester when my mom called to tell me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit, and like the rest of the world, Mom and I both knew it wasn’t an accident.

I bundled Maggie into the car and headed for Kindermusik, NPR blaring from the radio. I listened intently, a million story ideas flowing through my brain. I picked up my cell phone to call an editor at The Star when I realized no one there would have time to talk to me. I wasn’t a staff member anymore.

It was the first major news event of my working life that I wouldn’t be caught up in as a reporter, and the realization hit me like a punch in the stomach. I was out of the loop. Just a regular news consumer, hungry for information. And I felt lost, adrift.

A voice from the back seat brought me back to reality. “Mommy,” Maggie said, “please, can you turn off the radio? It’s scaring me.”

Oh, God. I’d completely forgotten I had a kid in the backseat, that I was a just a mom now, not a reporter. I told her I was sorry and turned on her Kindermusik CD.

After that, I suppose I dealt with the events of the day and those to come just as any other American did. I was cautious, I worried about flying again, I watched news reports and read articles in newspapers and magazines. I didn’t have any inside information, no access to the wire services, nothing.

In the past, when something big happened, I felt a part of things because invariably I localized stories, just like every other reporter. When the Columbine High School shooting occurred, I wrote stories about how local schools prepared for such an event, for example. And doing those stories, although fodder for massive bitching and griping, gave me a sense of contributing to a solution and probably helped me deal with whatever grief and despair I felt at such awfulness.

This time, though, there was nothing. And the void inside me grew and engulfed me as I grieved people I didn’t know and a world that was never coming back.

And then one day, I figured something out. My exit from journalism freed me, gave me the opportunity to help in ways I couldn’t as an unbiased reporter. Maybe I couldn’t reach the masses through the media anymore, but I could help in some way, somehow, in my corner of the world. I could try to change what I could where I could.

So as I embark on my second year of grad school in my quest to become a social worker, I can look back and trace the epiphany that brought me here to that glorious September morning 10 years ago, when I felt the world crumbling all around me.

It took me almost a decade to find my way, not unlike the survivors and children of those who didn’t make it. And life still won’t be the same. But I think I’m OK with that now.

Where did this kid come from?

PowerSchool is such a double-edged sword.

You know PowerSchool – it’s the nifty electronic grade book that allows parents to know at every minute of the day how their kids are doing in school. It’s both a gift and a curse.

The gift comes because no longer are we surprised when the kids bring home their grades, good or bad. The curse is that every flipping day – if you’re neurotic like me and have the high school e-mail you daily updates of your kid’s grades – you’re faced with the reality that while your kid said he understood his biology assignment, more than likely he didn’t.

A couple days ago my oldest told me I’d ruined his day, and it wasn’t even 7 a.m. That’s because I checked my e-mail at 6:30 a.m. and saw the daily PowerSchool update. And lo and behold, his bio grade had fallen an entire letter since the previous day’s update.

I didn’t rant and rave and talk about wasted potential – not then. I didn’t want to ruin his day. I don’t live to ruin the days of my kiddos, but good luck convincing them of that.

But I asked him why he’d received a big fat zero on an assignment I was pretty sure I’d seen him working on. He didn’t know, he said. He’d turned it in.

“Did you really?” I asked, knowing even as the words left my lips that I was edging into the danger zone. But I couldn’t help myself.

“Mom!” he moaned. “Why don’t you trust me?”

Hmmm. I don’t know. Why don’t I trust him? Could it be because of his sometimes creative massaging of the truth?

Except that I was 99 percent sure he had done this assignment. So I told him he needed to ask his teacher about it. Maybe she’d made a mistake.

You’d have thought I told him he’d have to take it up with Dolores Umbridge. He looked stricken. Couldn’t I ask?

“Look,” I said, “it’ll be weird if I get involved. You don’t want people to think your mommy has to fix your problems, do you?”

Actually, that’s OK with him.

And that’s what I don’t get. Neither his dad nor I is a shrinking violet. We face our issues head-on. We don’t take getting stepped on lightly. We advocate for ourselves.

And we do it in front of our kids. I mean, we’re not going around raising hell all the time. But many’s the time my husband had argued with someone about an overcharge. The kids are always rolling their eyes behind his back.

Myself, I take the “good cop” approach until pushed to defend myself, which I’ve also done in front of the kids many times.

But our oldest – he sort of takes a Zen view of the world, at least this part of it. There must be some reason his grade fell a whole letter grade. Who is he to question fate? The grade is but one step on his path to enlightenment, blah blah blah.

Let him get slighted by the xBox while he’s playing FIFA soccer, though, and hoo boy. There’s hell to pay, xBox. And if his siblings short him a cupcake or donut or eat the last Little Debbie cake, watch out!

So I’m puzzled. Is this his way of rebelling against his dad and me, by becoming passive? I am a little worried.