Canadian Children's Author Dishes on Work, Travel and Parenting Teens
Helaine Becker doesn't do mornings. But that doesn't stop her from being a prolific and award-winning author of children's books, as well as a busy mother of two teenage boys -- Michael, 17, and Andrew, 15. The Toronto writer and public speaker has penned dozens of books, like the best-selling Looney Bay All-Star series, Secret Agent Y.O.U., Are You Psychic? and Mother Goose Unplucked. Becker spoke with ParentDish Canada about the myth of work/family balance, laissez-faire parenting and learning to live with World of Warcraft.
Q: What's the best parenting advice you ever received?
A: It was from my own mother when my son Michael was six or eight weeks old. I had very bad postpartum depression, and if you've ever suffered from a depression you know that every minute is a year long. You look into the future and you think, I will never get out of this, I will never escape this misery. And my mother looked at me and said, 'Do you think you're the only person who ever thought her baby will never grow up?' And I thought, 'Oh, she's right'. Just that little piece of snarky wisdom made me realize that there is a perspective to it. Even when you're deep in the thick of what you think is unbearable, it does pass and you will survive and you will move through it.
Q: What advice would you give a new parent?
A: My advice would be relax. Just chill. Especially if it's a first child, you think everything you do is so critical. But I came across some information in a book by a linguistics professor and he said, as much as we love to think we're the center of the universe, our impact on our children is really very small. There's 'x' percent that's genetic, there's 'x' percent that we contribute, but 50 percent or more is their environment and things you can't control. And what that means is that as a parent, you can do your best, and yes, you're gonna mess up, but it doesn't matter the way we think it does. To me that was very relaxing. Okay, I made a mistake, I shouted at them, maybe I could have done it better, but it's okay.
Q: What do you find most challenging as a parent?
A: The endless responsibility for someone else's needs and schedule. I have managed in adulthood to get myself organized, but I still can't organize myself enough to go out and get a "real job," which is why I'm a writer. But having to organize everyone else's stuff -- their hockey, their homework, getting them to this lesson, that lesson. I thought, I'm not made for this, I'm a creative sort, you know? Let me play puppets with you, let someone else get you to where you need to be!
Q: How do you balance work and parenting?
A: I think this whole idea of balancing the two is the cruellest thing that the last 20 years has delivered to parents. It's impossible, there is no such thing as balance. There's balance over the course of a lifetime, but you can't have it all at once. There's this illusion that somehow you're going to be superwoman, on the go with a fantastic career, and you're also going to be the perfect earth mother. No, it doesn't work that way. Doing anything well requires that you spend time on it. And that doesn't mean you can't work, but you're not going to be able to work at the same high level as when you didn't have children. You can't take one person and slice them in two.
Q: Do you struggle with keeping your kids from spending all their time with video games, computers, all that electronic entertainment?
A: Yes and no. Neither of my sons have cell phones because I think this is a technology they do not need. They do not need me to call them and know where they are at all times, it's not good for them, it's not good for me. And I've never had a Nintendo or any kind of gaming system in the house because I feel it's a complete waste of time and counterproductive to having a healthy childhood, to maintaining proper socialization skills and physical health. Of course, the result is that my kids go over to their friends' house and play video games over there. And in my mind, I think at least if they do that, they are with another live body while they are doing it, plus it's time-limited because they have to come home. That being said, my older son he has a laptop for school and he plays World of Warcraft constantly, he is addicted to it. It does bother me, but he has now persuaded us it's mostly social, and he is doing the things he needs to do. He does his chores, he takes the dog out, his grades are good, he has friends. So, my kids have very little compared to what other kids do, but it can still be a problem.
Q: What is your favourite thing to do with your kids?
A: Travelling. My kids are teenagers now, and we're lucky because they still like being with their parents. My husband and I actually met travelling in Europe when we were university students, and we always had this fantasy: Of course we'll be back, we're citizens of the world! And then life interferes and you're forty and you haven't gone anywhere except Mississauga, Ontario. And we thought, okay, we've got to take the kids before they graduate, and so we went back to where we met and we had so much fun. It was totally idyllic.
Q: What's your least favourite activity -- Homework? Getting everyone ready in the morning? The dentist?
A: All of those things! When it comes to getting my kids ready in the morning, I just don't do it. I'm so bad at mornings I don't get up with my kids. People ask, 'How do you do that?' and I say, 'It's amazing what people can do when you're not there.' I do follow 'laissez-faire' parenting, and as a result, my kids tend to be much more self-sufficient. They know how to use the subway or the bus and get around town. And they are shocked and appalled about people who are sixteen and who have never been on the subway. They're proud of themselves, they have so much confidence. And to me, that's so great. In the teenage years, you lose that sense of self, and when you can do these basic things like get around on your own, it takes away so much of the fear.