TIME Parenting

I Became a Father in an Instant—Becoming a Dad Would Take Years

Harper Collins

Joseph Luzzi teaches at Bard and is the author of the new memoir, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love, from which this essay is adapted.

Everything I thought I knew about being a father was wrong

On a cold November morning in 2007, my wife Katherine had a fatal car accident. Forty-five minutes before she died, our daughter Isabel was born, a miracle of health rescued by an emergency cesarean. After Isabel defied the odds to make it into the world, I went from taking her life for granted to being unable to look at her without my heart racing. I had become her biological father in a grisly instant; becoming her dad would take years.

I hadn’t reflected on what fatherhood meant before her birth. My preconceived notions of a father’s roles—breadwinner, patriarch, protector—belonged to an outdated playbook, one created in Calabria, an impoverished southern Italian region where my father, Pasquale Luzzi, was born. Drafted into the Italian army as a young man, he barely survived World War II, and immigrated with his wife and four small children to the U.S. in 1956, where he would spend his days doing backbreaking factory work. My father was the kind of man who, as my pregnant mother was delivering his children, stayed clear of the hospital and chose instead to visit the social club to drink wine and play cards.

After Katherine’s death, I relied on my family, especially my widowed mom and my four sisters. This freed me for jaunts to the playground with Isabel, vanilla ice cream with her on the beach, and father-daughter sing-alongs at the local music program. I had been raised according to the gender dictates of ancient Calabria. I grew up watching my mother tend to my father like an aide-de-camp after his debilitating stroke 13 years before he died. I would never have admitted as much, but to me it was taken for granted that my mother would change Isabel’s diapers while I slept soundly.

Yet with each midnight diaper changing that I slept through, with each afternoon nap when I fled the house to play tennis or work on my book, Isabel’s infancy was slipping through my fingers. My mother was devoted to Isabel, but she was in her 80s, and her regime of feeding my daughter consisted of goods that you could pick up at the gas station.

I was living under the spell of what Joan Didion called “magical thinking”: the cool-minded craziness of those who expect their loved one back at any moment. I knew that Katherine wasn’t coming back for those knockout leopard-print shoes she wore the night I met her. Mine was a different kind of magical thinking: the sense that the world began and ended with my own suffering. My grief became an airtight shell, and contrary to my calm outward appearance, my sorrow now defined me.

Worst of all, my sorrow was keeping me from forming an emotional attachment with Isabel. I loved her, but I did not feel that instinctual protectiveness that should have made her needs the center of my world. This was grief’s greatest exile: the separation I felt from my flesh and blood. The smallest tasks associated with her care flustered me. The prospect of arranging her gear for our outings—the network of bottles, diapers, and bibs—could send me into paroxysms of anxiety, as could the slightest outburst of her tears or discomfort. Any time I was confronted with the prospect of long, unbroken hours with my daughter, I ran—literally.

I purchased a little home for us, finally moving out of the apartment I had shared with Katherine. As I slowly joined the living, my own idea of what a father should be started to come into focus. It had little to do with the duties I had originally imagined make a dad: breadwinner, patriarch, roles that my difficult but responsible and loving father played magnificently. My discoveries were much humbler—and in places that my father, with his dashing Old World charm and perfectly coiffed hair, would never set foot in. I loved to take Isabel shopping in the big box stores and push her through the aisles of Target in an elephantine red cart. As I balanced my shopping bags in one hand and hoisted Isabel into her car seat with the other, I felt like more than just her father—I was slowly becoming her dad. The real transition came when my mom moved out of the house, and I began to raise Isabel on my own.

I had imagined that fatherhood meant above all sacrifice, the giving up of the things you love for the one you love, a kind of ascetic affirmation of love in self-denial. How wrong I was. There was nothing of the sense of loss implied by sacrifice, as I slowly organized my days around Isabel’s needs, rather than my own. The love I now felt for my daughter was the most self-satisfying, self-fulfilling I had ever known.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Mother

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So how about we stop striving to be one?

There’s this mom at the pre-school where my son goes who, I used to think, was the perfect mother.

She’s one of the few stay-at-home-moms who shows up at school every day wearing something other than a uniform of yoga pants, a t-shirt and comfy shoes. She’s always well groomed and not wearing remnants of her children’s breakfast or runny noses all over her shirt. She volunteers in the classroom multiple times a week and spends the moments before school starts gently reading to her child. When there’s a bake sale, her brownies look mouthwateringly delicious, unlike my tray which gets avoided like the plague. Nothing seems to faze her, and from the moment I spotted her, an imaginary halo seemed to dance atop her head.

Last spring, one of the other school moms generously held a book launch party at her home for me. I read a chapter from my book out loud and held a Q&A, followed by some snacks and chatting. I gratefully smiled at the people I knew and got introduced to some faces I recognized from drop-off and pick-up but had never met. It was a wonderful evening and I was grateful to be surrounded by so many real life Scary Mommies. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, I saw her — The Perfect Mother — coming towards me. What on earth was she doing here, I wondered. Like she could relate to anything I wrote, little Mrs. I Do Everything Right.

“I have to tell you how much I loved your book,” she greeted me with. “I could have written almost every word myself. It was so me.”

Huh? Say what?!

What on earth in my book could she relate to? She was the one I referenced when talking about the foreign perfection I’d never in my life hope to achieve. She was the one who looked like a million bucks all the time and who always seemed to handle everything that came at her with grace. While everything I did was merely good enough, everything she touched was perfect with a capital P. Had she picked up the wrong book? What author had she mistaken me with?

Unfortunately, those were not thoughts in my head. Unable to contain my shock and awe, that’s exactly how I responded to her, sounding certifiably insane, since we’d never officially met and she had no idea she’d made such an impression on me. She burst out laughing.

“Me? Perfect?” She laughed until she snorted – LOUDLY – the imaginary halo slowly tumbling off of her head.

She went on to explain that the only reason she showered in the morning was to wake herself up, because without that jolt of cold water at 7AM, she’d never peel herself out of bed. She wears Spanx under her jeans and steers clear of yoga pants because the cellulite on her thighs shows through them so clearly that she can’t stomach it. She reads to her kid in the morning because she’s too spent at the end of the day to do it and he falls asleep watching a DVD most nights. And those brownies I’ve drooled over? Her mother makes them because she can’t cook to save her life.

Hello, nice to meet you, my new favorite person on earth! I think I love you.

Sadly, her son went off to kindergarten last fall, so I stopped seeing her in the lobby and at school events, but I think of her often, this not so perfect mom. Every time I make a snap judgment or feel inferior to some other mother I bear witness to, I envision that halo falling down and the sound of her unglamorously snorting echoes in my head. That interaction was one of the single greatest parenting lessons I’ve learned.

Turns out there is no perfect mother. Really; there’s not. So how about we stop striving to be one, and instead settle for something much more realistic?

Being ourselves.

This article originally appeared on Scary Mommy.

More from Scary Mommy:

TIME Parenting

How Dads Can Raise Strong Women

Harper Collins

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.

Dads of military women showed their daughters how to be their best—wherever that took them

When it comes to raising fierce young women determined to test their own limits and dare big things, dads can make a difference.

“I always taught my daughters to do everything their brother could,” Bob White, father to 1st Lt. Ashley White told me one evening in his Ohio living room. Every summer from the time they were aged 11 or 12, White took Ashley and her two siblings, twin sister Brittany and older brother Josh, to work on the factory floor at his family-owned small business. His daughters worked the assembly line like everyone else—mostly men—around them. When people would ask him why they didn’t work in the office, away from the grime and the dirt of the factory floor, he would look at them quizzically. They were perfectly capable of working the line, as capable as their brother was, and he wanted them to know the demands, the rigors and the value of that kind of work, not protect them from it.

White was hardly the exception. I spent two years interviewing more than two dozen young women who volunteered in 2011 (when the combat ban for women was still in place) to be part of a U.S. Army Special Operations pilot program to put the fittest, finest and most capable women soldiers on the battlefield alongside tested special operations fighters. The hard-charging dad who encouraged his daughter to test every limit became part of nearly every story I heard from women who answered their country’s call to join the kinds of combat missions seen by less than 5% of the U.S. military.

These dads aren’t an anomaly: A report last year from the University of British Columbia noted that fathers with egalitarian ideas about gender “have daughters with higher workplace ambitions.”

Cassie Spaulding (name changed because at time of the book’s writing she was in a working role related to the special operations community) was a Florida native who joined the Army after being a ROTC cadet, women’s studies minor and a sorority sister while in college. Growing up, she watched the news and read the Wall Street Journal with her dad each evening. In our conversations, she would refer to him as her best friend and closest confidante. When she served her first deployment in Iraq, as a military police officer, he sent her care packages with crossword puzzles and books. And when she told him not too long after she returned home that she planned to try out to be part of this new, all-women special ops team, he encouraged her to try for it. After the physically and mentally grueling week-long selection process (known as “100 Hours of Hell”) had finished, Cassie’s dad was the first person she texted to tell him she had made it. He texted her right back to say he never had any doubt.

Kate Raimann and Tristan Marsden (names also changed), both West Point graduates, had a similar story. Both had military dads who instilled in them the importance of service. Kate’s dad shared his stories of being an Army pilot, and while he didn’t push his daughter to go to West Point, he was proud that she did. By the time Tristan was 5, her dad had taught her and her younger sister all the words to the U.S. Marines’ Hymn. When Tristan wrote a “just in case” letter to her family from Afghanistan to be read in the event she did not return home, she wrote to her dad:

You always had a way of making us believe we could do anything. Whether it was making the softball team or becoming astronauts or just squeezing by in that math modeling class, you never doubted that any of us were capable of anything we set our hearts to. I could never tell you how much that has meant.

All of these dads showed their daughters through their examples and their words that they had one standard for their children: to be their best and to do their best, wherever that took them. And to test all the barriers before them not to prove a point, but to fulfill their purpose. At a recent book signing a well-dressed man approached me to introduce himself. “I’m Cassie’s best friend,” he said, referring to the description of him in the book. “And I couldn’t be more proud.”

Watch the TED Talk on the first women to fight on the front lines of an American war.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

Meek Mill: Being a Father Means Giving My Son the Life He Deserves

Photo courtesy of author Meek Mill with his son.

Meek Mill is a chart-topping rapper from Philadelphia.

'Growing up without a father made me realize just how special time is with my son'

As a father, now I get to give my son the life I never had. Being able to give him anything he wants is one of the best feelings in the world—but it’s also scary. When you see how much one person can trust you, look up to you, and depend on you, the last thing you want to do is disappoint them. The fact that no one can teach you how to be a father means you are always learning on the job. I love my son with all my heart, and I would do anything for him. It’s a crazy feeling knowing that I will help him become a great man.

With my career and my crazy schedule, sometimes it’s tough to be able to spend the amount of time with him that I want and that he deserves. After spending time away from him, one of my favorite things to do is get on my four wheeler with my little man in tow. Picture us riding around my neighborhood waving at all my neighbors. My son is fearless on his bike. Those are the moments I think about when I’m on the road.

Before I leave, I always explain to him that everything I do, I do for him. All the shows, all the nights in the studio, I do with my son in mind. It doesn’t make it any easier, but I’m blessed to be in the financial situation that I’m in. I’m grateful I don’t have to think twice about whether there is going to be food on his table. My son doesn’t have to worry about that the way that I did—nor does the rest of my family. I’m not just a father to my son, but a provider to my whole family. I provide for them not because I have to, but because I want to. They have all been there for me through my highs and lows. They’ve always made sure I was taken care of, and now it’s my turn to take care of them.

I never had a strong male figure in my life. I didn’t have that person to teach me things fathers teach their sons because my father was killed when I was young. It was just me, my mom, and my sister, so I had to be the man of the house. When I was younger, I remember being able to speak to my father and then in the blink of an eye, he was gone. My mom played the role of both mom and dad. We had nothing growing up, so my mom worked any job she could find to provide for me and my sister. I love her so much for that. But as much as I appreciated everything my mother did for me, she couldn’t fill the space that a father should hold in a child’s life.

I still miss my dad, and I always will. Growing up without a father made me realize just how special time is with my son and how much of an impact I can have on his life. There are so many single mothers out there struggling to fill both roles, raising their families all by themselves. They don’t get the credit they deserve. There’s not enough ways to really say thank you, but we celebrate them, too, for all they do. To all my family and friends who are celebrating Father’s Day with their children, we salute you for being role models for all the young fathers in our community.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

What Parents Can Learn From Inside Out

disney, pixar, inside out, amy poehler, mindy kaling, lewis black, movies
Pixar/Disney Amy Poehler stars as the personification of Joy, left, with Phyllis Smith starring as the voice of Sadness.

It's the anti-helicopter parenting movie

All parents want their kids to be happy. I mean, obviously. But for most of history in most of the world that has meant keeping them from hunger and death and physical bodily harm. What happens when those threats aren’t quite so looming? Pixar’s new movie is an examination of our modern obsession with keeping our kids in a permanent state of delight. It could be the ultimate anti helicopter-parenting movie.

Of course, like all Pixar movies, it’s also about eccentric characters going on an unlikely adventure. In this case, our heroines are exploring the inner workings of that undiscover’d country, the brain. And those heroines are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler, this generation’s go-to embodiment of spunk and optimism) and Sadness (voiced, with wonderful melancholy, by The Office’s Phyllis Smith).

Joy is a type-A workaholic, running around manically to make sure the little factory that is the brain of Riley, a Minnesotan girl who has recently moved to San Francisco, is always fully stocked with upbeat feelings. She tries to keep her co-workers, Anger, Fear and Disgust in line. But most of all she wants to sideline Sadness. Sadness’s chubby little blue hands are not allowed to touch any of the childhood memories that roll like marbles into Riley’s brain.

Especially precious are the more brightly gleaming marbles that represent the core memories. When one of those arrives in the processing room and it’s blue, not chatreuse, meaning it’s sad, not happy, Joy takes extreme steps to prevent it from finding its permanent place in the brain. And ultimately, that puts Riley at risk.

The parallels with modern parenthood are hard to miss here. Feeding and protecting kids from existential threats is no longer the absorbing task it once was, but the instinct to raise happy kids doesn’t go away. So parents try to stave off any potential source of distress—a failure, a loss, a heartache—by flooding the zone of childhood with delight.

For a start, this is exhausting—anyone with less energy than Amy Poehler would just lose her mind—and secondly, it’s counterproductive. Without sadness or failure, kids can’t build resilience. The little islands of security that Joy has built in Riley’s brain, with very little input from Fear, Anger, Disgust or most of all Sadness, prove to be quite fragile and not very colorful.

In his book on building resilience in kids, Grit, Paul Tough quotes the principal of a prestigious U.S. school: “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” Spoiler alert: Joy comes to understand that sadness has its place too, that it’s a useful and necessary emotion.

Inside Out doesn’t just gently and comically suggest that perhaps we are making our kid’s lives unhappier by trying to make them happy, it offers an alternative: Riley’s actual parents. Her dad has moved to San Francisco for a startup and is obviously under a bit of stress. Her mom is distracted by the stress of finding a missing truck with all their belongings. (Some Pixar peeps clearly have their issues with moving companies.) But they’re there for Riley. They ask if she wants them to take her to her new school; she doesn’t, so she goes alone. They find a new hockey league for her, but don’t make her join. They make a fool of themselves to support her, when that seems appropriate.

They don’t notice her unhappiness, and she makes a few ill-conceived decisions, but, of course—spoiler alert again!—she realizes her error. Pixar has always made movies for adults cleverly disguised as movies for kids, and and Inside Out is no exception. It simplifies certain concepts in brain science, but it illustrates others in a way that almost anyone could grasp —the dream studio is a particularly inspired sequence—and that may make it simpler for grownups and kids to realize why they’re feeling as they do. As Tough says, “Any time you need to use the term hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal in order to make your point, you’ve got trouble.”

One note of warning. Some people have labeled the movie PMCIFOTC. (Parents May Cry In Front Of Their Children.) Adults should be accompanied by an understanding minor.

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TIME Parenting

Why I Hate Gratuitous Childhood Graduations

Group of children wearing graduation robes, rear view
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xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

"It’s not noteworthy that your kid is officially a middle schooler; it’s expected"

xojane

When I was a child, I remember passing from one grade to the next. Sometimes it was eventful. At other times, it was anti-climatic, but that is the nature of being a child. Graduation was something that seemed far off in the distance, somewhere otherworldly even, because when you are a child, you can’t possibly imagine the day that your life will be in your own hands—and your primary education is done. That was the significance of graduation back then.

Today, it seems like children are graduating from everything under the sun, from nursery school to eighth grade. As a parent, I’m watching and rolling my eyes. Who are these “graduations” for, anyway? I don’t want to send my child the message that each and every step in their winding path is one where we need to stop, drop and celebrate. Sure, life is grand, but if you ask me, we need to be a little more comfortable with the mediocre and mundane.

Don’t get me wrong, becoming a parent is a joyful experience in many ways; watching my child hit milestones is filled with wonder. Many times my husband and I are looking at one another saying, “Can you believe she did that?!” But not all milestones are created equal—in fact, some milestones are just plain made up. That is precisely how I feel about the creation of the preschool, kindergarten, fifth grade and eighth grade graduations. And I’m dreading it.

When I was a kid, the school year just ended. Maybe we had a pizza party, or a small family or in-class celebration, but that was it. Graduation, in my opinion, is something that happens when you truly accomplish something—and if you ask me, passing a grade that you are expecting to pass as a child is not worthy of a graduation.

I know that some parents will poo-poo me, or call me a bad sport because they think it’s cute to put their kids in little graduation caps and gowns, but hear me out. Making every occasion one that is ceremony-worthy can start to send the wrong message. We seem to state to our kids that everything they do is so special and that they should be constantly doted over. The real world isn’t going to celebrate our children every time they do what is expected of them.

While I understand that childhood is “special,” some parents need to come to grips with the fact that childhood isn’t a dress rehearsal—it’s real life—and we’re setting the foundation for our children for them to come up in the world. It’s not noteworthy that your kid is officially a middle schooler; it’s expected. It’s not a rite of passage to put on a cap and gown every time you switch schools; it’s called growing up.

I believe that graduation is a significant marker of completion. Graduation from high school signifies the ability to be in control of your life and destiny, and you have a choice whether to continue on in your education. College graduation is yet another milestone where your world is once again expanded and new opportunities become available to you. Those are significant, cap-and-gown-worthy moments. But why should our children ever care about that when by the time they reach their high school graduation, they have already participated in up to four “graduations?”

All this faux-graduation business really does is cheapen the experiences that were once really special and meaningful.

The worst part in all of this is that as a parent, you are basically forced to participate. Because as much as I truly think it’s awful that I will have to play along in these ceremonies, I’m not about to be the parent who tells my kid we’re not doing the thing all her peers are doing. That would only create trauma where it doesn’t need to exist.

I don’t know how I will handle it, ultimately. Should I explain to my child that this graduation is really just some silly game of dress up? Do I say nothing? It’s hard to know exactly how I’ll react. The simple truth is I don’t want to participate at all. So I’m appealing to parents to come to their senses.

Stop this insanity of endless graduations in the most elaborate of make-believe set ups. As a parent, I spend a lot of time playing make-believe, as a good parent should. In playgroup, we collectively spend time making things magical for our children, and it’s great. But sometimes, as is the case with these types of trumped up celebratory moments, it’s not the children we’re putting on a ruse for, it’s ourselves, and to pretend otherwise is just ridiculous.

Basically, in the end, we adults in the room are making our children get all gussied up for a graduation ceremony so that we can feel good. Our children would never know the difference, and—like we were at their age—would be completely satisfied with a pizza, some ice cream and a movie to mark the end of the school year.

Do your children a favor and request that these graduations end because they are fake, serve no purpose, and mostly, I don’t want to attend them.

Billie Criswell wrote this article for xoJane.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

How Deadbeat are Deadbeat Dads, Really?

New study suggests they give stuff rather than money

There are fewer pariahs more deeply loathed by society at large than the deadbeat dad, the fully-grown man, who, having had his fun, abandons his responsibilities. And the numbers of men who pay little or no child support has always been staggering. In 2011, only 61% of child support payments were made by men to the mothers of their children.

But as with most pariahs, things are more complicated than they seem. The Census reports that in 2011 about the same percentage of moms who didn’t live with their kids paid all the child support they owed as dads who didn’t. And a new research paper suggests that baby dads are not quite as useless as the numbers and their popular image would imply.

The study, which appeared in June in the Journal of Marriage and Family, finds that many fathers who don’t pay child support in cash, nevertheless make a significant contribution in kind. Almost half of the fathers in the study who were cash-poor nevertheless tried to contribute in other ways—providing baby products, clothing, school expenses and food—worth an average of $60 a month.

“The most disadvantaged dads end up looking like they’re completely distanced from their kids but they’re actually giving quite a lot,” said one of the authors, Kathryn Edin, a sociologist and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Distinguished Professor. “I was really surprised by how much these disadvantaged guys, these truly marginally employed men, are putting all of this thought and what little resources they have into showing their children that they care.”

Of the 367 lower income, noncustodial dads studied in three different cities, only 23% gave what the courts would recognize as child-support through the system, but 46% contributed in-kind support and 28% gave cash straight to the mom, says the study, which is the first to look specifically at the more informal ways dads try to look after their kids.

Sixty six of the dads in the study were what’s considered the full-on deadbeat, giving absolutely no cash support to the 95 children they fathered between them. But the researchers found they gave $63 per child a month through in-kind support — support that doesn’t show up in statistics.

Edin, with her husband Timothy J. Nelson, has done extensive study of so-called deadbeat dads; together they wrote the book Doing the Best I Can about inner city fatherhood. She may be one of the nation’s foremost experts on non-custodial fathers and is certainly one of the group’s biggest (female) defenders.

Many sociologists believe that the current system of child support payments often leads mothers to deny fathers access to their children until they have paid what they owe, thus souring the relationship between all three. Indeed, the study found that fathers who did not visit their kids gave only about half as much in-kind support as those who spent at least 10 hours a month with them.

Why do dads prefer to buy stuff for their kids, rather than give money to the kids’ moms? Because they get more recognition for these acts from their children. It’s a way, says Edin, of bonding. “We need to respect what these guys are doing, linking love and provision in a way that’s meaningful to the child,” she said in a statement accompanying the release of the journal. “The child support system weakens the child/father bond by separating the act of love from the act of providing.”

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TIME Family

This Dove Commercial Will Make You Cry Happy Tears

The spot is made from real-life footage of men getting happy news

To mark this Father’s Day on June 21, Dove is releasing an ad that wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of some clever females.

The company cobbled together footage of men finding out that they were going to become fathers, news that their baby mamas (and one baby daddy) surprised them with in gift boxes and cards—with the camera rolling. All the footage was posted on public sites that Dove employees trawled through, contacting the parents to ask them to be part of the campaign.

Dove, whose “real beauty” campaign turned 10 years old in 2014, brought a similar approach to their men’s line, attempting to reflect dads as they are rather than as unrealistic archetypes. Jen Bremner, U.S. marketing director for Dove Men+Care, a line the company has been aligning with dads since it debuted in 2010, said that when the company was researching how to position the brand, they found that fathers felt falsely depicted in advertising, as either bumbling dolts or super-hot supermen.

“Actually becoming a dad is a very significant and transformative experience,” Bremner said. “It redefines their masculinity.” It also makes for some very good television.

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TIME Parenting

How to Deal with a Bored Kid

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Photo and Co; Getty Images

Different ages need different answers

School’s out! Yay! Now what?

Kids and parents who once looked forward to the summer break may suddenly find themselves dealing with the aggravation of a familiar complaint: “I’m bored!”

But boredom can also be an opportunity, according to Linda Caldwell, professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management and Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State.

“Boredom should be motivational,” she says. “It’s a sign that you need to change what you are doing and do something else.”

In fact, learning to beat boredom is a crucial life skill. Kids who are always bored in their leisure time, says Caldwell, are in danger of developing “long-term boredom, where nothing is ever interesting.” That long-term boredom has been linked to substance abuse, school drop out, and vandalism. And boredom doesn’t just come from having too few activities, Caldwell says. “It could be a sign you have too many.”

The good news? When kids connect with activities that mean something to them, their health and sense of identity both improve.

So how can parents help kids beat summer boredom?

When kids are in elementary school, Caldwell says, they need “a lot of support finding things they are interested in.” It’s important for parents to expose kids to different activities, and encourage them to try new things. Parents can help kids discover what they like – and what they don’t – by starting conversations about how kids enjoyed new experiences, what else they might like to try, and what they’d like to do again.

In middle school, Caldwell says, kids’ brains are primed for sensation seeking. With too much time on their hands, that can lead to a bent for dangerous thrills. But their neurological desire for novelty at this age also means they’re primed to develop lifelong passions, for everything from technology to arts. “Because of the pruning that takes place in the brain,” Caldwell says, “youth can actually sculpt their abilities to control impulses and hone their skills.” Parents can encourage middle school kids by checking in with them about what activities they get the most out of – and encouraging them to stick with them, even – or especially – if they’re challenging.

Even more than support in their activities, high school kids need freedom, according to Caldwell. Leisure is a time to feel “self-determined,” Caldwell says, “that they are making decisions and in control of the situation.” It’s an important time for kids to “experiment with who they are as a person: am I a soccer player? A photographer? An artist?” But if kids are too over-scheduled, Caldwell says, they “often are even more bored.” So unscheduled time is crucial. “We have an activity bias,” Caldwell says. “But creativity can happen in these quiet moments if you don’t panic because you are bored.” Parents can help busy high school students by letting them know it’s important to rest – and by starting conversations with them about the activities that matter most to them, and how those activities shape their ideas about who they might become.

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TIME Parenting

Stop Saying Moms Can’t Be Ambitious

Michele Weldon is emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. Her latest book, Escape Points: A Memoir is out this fall.

Many say a working mother cannot have it all—They're wrong

“Having it all would cost her everything.” That’s the tweet-ready tagline of the 2011 remake of Mildred Pierce, this iteration an HBO series starring Kate Winslet. I never saw it.

I have seen—and more than a few times—the black-and-white, over-the-top 1945 melodramatic horror show original. In it, Joan Crawford (who won the Academy Award for the role) plays Mildred, a single, working mother of two daughters. She struggles her way up from divorced waitress to restaurant chief executive officer, saying lines to her ungrateful, oversexed teenager daughter, Veda, like this one, “I took the only job I could so you and your sister could eat, have a place to sleep and have some clothes on your backs.”

I get that.

There’s a classic back-and-forth with one of her many gentlemen suitors, who, on his way out, nearly spits to Mildred, “You want Veda and your business and a nice quiet life. And the price of all that is me.” Mildred writes him a check and says goodbye.

I get that, too.

I heard the same break-up speech from a partner who declared after six years that he refused to any longer come in last place after my work and my three children, who were 10, 13, and 16 when we started dating. I have heard more recently from men frustrated by my travel schedule, professional commitments, and deadlines that I am too intense about my work. That particular line was delivered by the physician director of the intensive care unit at a major hospital.

No, a working mother cannot have it all. Everyone tells us so.

Just ask Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of ambition in her second quest for the White House, demonized as a mother and now grandmother. Did anyone ask Mitt Romney if he sacrificed much to be away from his children and grandchildren? As Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, elbows her way into the presidential race, we’ll see if and how her professional ambition and stepmotherhood are used against her.

It’s like a woman can’t be yin and yang at the same time: We can’t dream to rise to the top if our screensaver features our own kids. Do not fly too close to the sun, Mommie Dearest, if you have hatchlings in your nest. You will crash and burn.

To remind us, we have YouTube clips of classics, TED talks on working moms, and Modern Family episodes presenting the hazards of motherhood as a roadblock to ambition and professional fulfillment. We have the studies and the surveys and the confessions of crazy moms. It’s all just so, I don’t know, impossible.

It’s almost Father’s Day, and it reminds me of all the divisive and derisive camps where we splinter off and hunker down as parents to finger wag, blame, recoil, and claim no one parent does parenting better, no one does it well, but others certainly do it worse.

Perhaps the assumption that blisters most is that to be ambitious and to love what you do as a mother makes you a heartless Medea. Or incredibly wealthy with live-in help. Or married with an amazing parenting partner as Sheryl Sandberg was. Unfortunately as a new widow, Ms. Sandberg is in a rocking boat with her two children, adjusting to its weight shift with one set of oars. I salute her, and I want to reassure her that she can do this—be an ambitious single parent.

I do not believe I am alone in the endeavor to fill myself up professionally and to have enjoyed years of doing so while also spending every weekend and two to three nights a week watching three sons play baseball, basketball, soccer, football, and also wrestle. I do not consider the galaxy stars of hours I spent in those humid, feral gyms being a cheering mom as a hinderance to my career.

I feel my presence and my support to my sons made a difference. I also feel that the hours I spent teaching at a university, writing articles and books on deadline and giving seminars to thousands of people around the country made a difference. If not to my students and audiences, then definitely to me.

The painful, arduous narrative that surrounds working and parenting is not altogether truthful. Yes, it is mostly in the realm of the privileged, and meaningful work is not available to everyone. But I do not feel that it is a guarantee that every mother always must sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice to have both a family and work that is fulfilling. I do not believe that your mind has to suffer for your heart.

I feel you have to try and emboss the gray areas with improvised effort and attempt to give of yourself wherever you are most needed. You take a sick child to the immediate care center during after-work hours instead of the middle of the day. You finish the speech at 1 a.m on your laptop propped up in bed instead of by 5 p.m. seated neatly at your work space. You share babysitting, you multi-task, you wake up early.

And you tell everyone who listens that motherhood is not where ambition goes to die. Especially your children. Yes, especially them.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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