Thursday, January 29, 2015

Start with a Budget

Living Large by whole-heartedly enjoying the things in life that are most important to me happens most naturally when I practice the other piece of it, which is living within my means.  Simply stated, it’s spending only what I make or less.  It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite complex when you consider that the norms in our society include borrowing liberally to leverage our purchase power, creating financial peer pressure to spend more than we make.  Creating and sticking to a balanced budget each year, though, can not only keep your financial house in order, it can also help you choose your life’s passion. 

Start with a Budget - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
As a kid and teenager, it was easy to budget as I made so little money at my part-time jobs that I could only spend so much on clothes and outings before my wallet or bank account was empty.  When you were out of money, you simply couldn’t buy anything.  Those years were fun and simple.  Turning 18 threw a wrench into the plan for me.  Credit card company promotional tables lined the commons that first week of college with their reps taunting, “Buy it today and pay it off later,” and “Establish your own credit history,” as they handed me my free dorm-room-shower-caddy for opening up a revolving credit account at 21% interest.  It went downhill from there and I loaded up on debt for six years. 

Consumer Credit Counseling showed me, among many other debt-reduction ideas, how to create my first written budget in my early 20’s.  The advisor used a sheet of paper and a pencil, I later transferred it to an excel spreadsheet, and now I use Quicken, but regardless of the platform, the format is still the same.  You simply have to write down every dollar you bring in and match it to every dollar you hand out.  Do it in your photographic memory, on a bar napkin, in your phone, or in a piece of DIY software, but you have to do it if you want to get a handle on your finances. 

Start with the basics of a budget.  While doing it by month seems to be the easiest for most, since many payments are due monthly, use whatever period of time makes most sense for you, such as week or quarter.  First track the amount of your paycheck(s), allowance, stipend, grant, support, alimony, and any other source of income.  If you don’t make a static salary or wage, but say work on commission, calculate an average based on your last 3 months’ income earned.  Next create a separate column of regular expenses.  Regular doesn’t necessarily mean just monthly, but can mean a one-time expense that happens each year, like registration fee on your car or a 3-Day Pass to Lollapalooza.  Write each expense on a separate line with the name and amount.   If you’re not sure of what you spend on a regular basis, start by guesstimating.  You can go back and finesse the numbers later.  While utilities and car payments and bus passes usually make it onto these lines, many people forget the everyday “little” items that add up to big expenses when multiplied to equal a year’s worth of expenses, such as personal care such as grooming, salon visits, and products .  Household expenses like paper towels and tissue and toilet paper many times get forgotten, and expenses like dining, entertainment, kids’ sports and activities, and drive-through coffee really add up.  Take, for example, the year I reviewed my budget in December and was shocked to see that $5K had been spent in stocking our bar at home!  While the number itself is relative to the situation, for me that number represented 5% of the total income brought into our household that year.  It was more than the amount we spent in groceries for the year, more than we spent on our vacation, and topped what we gave to charity in a 12-month period.  Priorities people. 

Once you have all of your income in one column and your expenses in another, add up the two columns.  Your income should be more than or equal to your expenses.  If it’s not, you need to balance out the numbers.  This may require a Come-to-Jesus talk with yourself and a sit-down with your family about prioritizing or it may be as easy as looking for glaring categories where you can spend less and alter the amounts to reflect what you WANT to spend instead of what you have spent in the past.  Maybe you spend $700/month dining out.  It’s less expensive to buy groceries and make meals at home, so in order to cut costs, you could prepare more meals at home.  My dad always says, “Every solution creates a new set of problems.”  Your new problem may be that you don’t currently have time to do that, as by the time you go to work, go to the gym, make meals at home, and spend time with your family, the hours in the day have been exhausted.  So maybe it means changes your priorities for a period of time, or maybe indefinitely, to allow for cost cutting.  Maybe you could lose the gym membership to both cut that category amount and allow for the cooking at home, allowing you time to work out with your spouse, kids, or a friend, after dinner.  Everyone’s different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to budgeting.  Be creative.  You have to make the numbers work based on your values, priorities, and lifestyle.  Maybe you’ve cut all the proposed expenses you can and find that you’ll still be spending more than you make; time to look for extra income like a second job, or auctioning some of your possessions, or selling one of the items you own that you’ve financed, like a car or a home to alleviate the monthly payments.  No matter what your situation, there’s always options, some more palatable than others.

Start with a Budget - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Once you’ve set up your budget of proposed spending, you then need to stick to it and track what you spend.  If you put $400 a month in your budget for groceries, then only spend $100 at the store each week.  Pick and choose your stores and purchases instead of shopping on demand.  Following your own financial recommendation is the key to success.  Track your daily expenses and tabulate your monthly expenses in each category.  Keep receipts, take pics of them, have them sent to you electronically, or keep a running tally in your head of what you’ve spent on what…it doesn’t matter how, just do something that makes sense for you.  Sounds dramatic?  It’s not.  Once you tabulate what you actually spend in a month, you will be shocked, as most of us don’t accurately depict our spending because we don’t have a handle on the facts.  Once you see what you spend, compare each month/quarter/or year what you spend to what you predicted and massage the numbers from there.

While budgeting helps me ensure my family’s financial security, which is hugely important, it also provides the bonus of giving me a reason to sit down and actually evaluate who I am and who I want to be.  How we spend our money tells a lot about us.  It shows me how I spend my time, how my family spends its time, what we hold near and dear, and what we’re teaching or not teaching our kids.  Sometimes I like what I see and I’m proud of our month or year.  Other times, I’m disappointed and ingest the data and use it to hone my priorities and passions, allowing me to refocus for the next year or period of time.  What does your budget or spending say about you?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Make Money and Save Money by Doing the Things You Love

Make Money by doing the things you love - Stacy Snyder - Parentunplugged
Before we get into the down and dirty money-saving concepts of what I call Living Large, I want to remind you of the basic concept, which is balancing the ideas of living comfortably within your means and whole-heartedly enjoying those things in life that are most important to you. 

My wife loves her job and truly “lives to work” in the service industry.  She’s been with the same company for almost fifteen years and never gets tired of a Potbelly Sandwich.  Conversely, for five years, I was simply “working to live” in real estate sales.  While schlepping anything from a house, a job opening, or even a date is in my bones, making it impossible for me NOT to make money in sales, I derived zero pleasure from the day to day work of a real estate agent, not even from the rockin’ financial payoff, except when I used it as a vehicle to pay down debt. 

I’ve always believed in the idea that if you love what you do, the money just naturally comes.  This is more of a soft approach than a hard-core job search for a specific position you love.  Basically it’s the mind-set that the more time you make for yourself to do the things you actually enjoy, even be it just as a hobby or project, the more opportunities you’ll come across to make money doing what you love.

Case in point:  a person who volunteers time to others to do the things he loves, such as teaching people how to do things, fixing broken stuff, preparing tax returns, teaching roller skating, baking sweet treats, heck, even writing, can often pick up paying job requests simply by showing up and doing what he does.  Experience shows over and over that people gravitate towards other people that are passionate about what they’re doing and will think of that guy first and reach out to him when another need arises.

By being a natural efficiency helper, i.e. I like to help people do things more easily and in the shortest amount of time possible, I’ve had job offers galore.  Yes I'm good at it, but the job offers come because I'm passionate about it and that rubs off on people.  Because I grew up in a hoarder household, I love to go through and purge stuff….my stuff, your stuff, it doesn’t matter…I just like to clear it.  In doing so, I’ve picked up gigs to clear and organize other people’s homes.  Take it a step further to note that because I’m also a long-time fan of garage sales, I’m a natural craigslister, ebayer, virtual garage-seller, and free-cycler.  Just by talking about selling and purging things, or sometimes just by chance that other people view my posts, I’m often asked to sell or clear other people’s stuff for a fee.  I don’t set out to necessarily make money doing these random things that I am passionate (or obsessive, depending on how you look at it) about, but it simply comes naturally, creating a new source of income.  Imagine what could happen if you actually set out with a business plan to market the things that you do or make well?  Could you supplement or even replace your current income?  Of course you could.

When I wanted out of the real estate industry so bad I couldn’t see straight, my gut instinct was to look for another high-paying gig, no matter what it was.  But instead, I happened upon a business opportunity with a jewelry company by a fluke.  I had met a friend for lunch and she was wearing a super cool black onyx ring.  I love unique pieces of jewelry.  I don’t wear a ton of bling, but when I do, I only rely on pieces that I absolutely adore.  When I asked my friend about the ring, she told that she had purchased it at a home jewelry party, and that she was so impressed with the rest of the jewelry that the company makes and the high profits from the sales, that she decided to start selling it herself to make some extra income.  She asked me if I wanted to have a party to help her out.  I one-upped her and not only said sure, but asked if I could sell it too, as I wanted a way to afford to buy jewelry!  By the end of that first party, my friend and I had sold tons of jewelry, earning her a big commission, earned loads of free jewelry for ourselves, and I had booked 6 future jewelry parties from my more-than-willing guests.  I had set out just to find a new black ring and ended up with a full-time salary from a part-time gig.  Again, I didn’t set out to consciously make money selling jewelry, but simply because I allowed myself to do what I enjoy, wearing jewelry, even though I couldn’t really afford to buy it, I created a new source of revenue.   

Additional sources of income can be generated on a much smaller scale too.  I LOVE to give my opinion on things – shocker.  So for the past 15 years, I’ve participated in Market Research Study groups, where my input actually gets heard by companies whose products I use in exchange for a financial payout, usually anywhere from $75 - $300 for a 1-2 hour study.  This is different than giving blood, plasma, or sperm for cash in college so you could go out to the bars that evening, which I also used to do.  No, what I’m suggesting is choosing only those opportunities that actually appeal to you, as you’ll not only enjoy what you’re doing, but make extra money at the same time.  Here’s a few of the market research groups in Chicago:
·         Matrix Research
·         Smith Research
·         FocusScope 

One final example of making money doing the things you love, and I have hundreds of them, is to be a beta tester.  I love new technology.  I love to hear about it, get people’s feedback on it, and of course, try it myself.  Over the years I’ve been a default beta tester for at least 25 new ventures, from deal-saving apps to baby product websites to accounting software.  Again, I really like to give my opinion on things, AND I use all sorts of technology, so it’s a good match.  Sometimes beta testers are granted compensation, in the form of money, products, or services.  It’s a great way to keep your mind fresh, help companies out by giving your input on usability, and to make money or save costs on something you’d buy anyway.  Want to get started?  Beta test a new app called Payyourselfie which doesn’t offer compensation for the actual testing, but because it is designed under an emerging app category of "apps that pay money," which is an idea in itself in making extra money, it pays its users simply for taking selfies.  Simply visit the website and request to beta test.   

You can also save money appreciating those things that bring you joy.  While Groupon, Living Social, and have been out there saving folks money for some time now by selling discounted products and services in exchange for consumers buying them in advance, a whole new line of apps that save you money are out there ripe for the pickin’.  Snap by Groupon is a new app that allows you to browse and choose grocery and household items from a list of products you plan on buying in the future.  You then buy the promoted items at any store (I always recommend ALDI for best savings), snap a photo of your receipt, and accumulate a cash balance in your snap account.  It works on repeated use, so you have to hit $20 in your account before you can request a payout.  Genius. It's available for free download.   
Saving Money doing the things you love - Stacy Snyder - Parentunplugged

Saving money can be as simple a concept as enjoying eating doughnuts and coffee.  By being a doughnut lover, you probably pay attention to a social media post about donuts or notice if your favorite doughnut shop is offering a special or has a job opening. While it’s on a much smaller scale, than say, a full-time job’s salary, getting free donuts and coffee for a week is truly not only sheer happiness for a doughnut fiend, but also a true savings.  If you eat breakfast and drink coffee every day, that could add up to $5/day or more, totally $25 in savings.  If you like that idea, steal it, as Glazed & Infused is actually offering a FREE cup of coffee and doughnut holes at each of its five locations to every customer this week through Monday, January 26th.  They’d love a little social love in return, but it’s not required. 

As parents, we often forget to take time to figure out what is currently important to each of us.  Sure we can all point to family and security and friends and maybe even work, but what about those ancillary things that you truly love like, playing or watching a sport, road-tripping, or feeling good about the impact you can make by giving your time to an organization or a person.  These are the things that get swept under the rug and often forgotten, yet these are the things that can bring you back to being true to yourself.  And if you’re out doing the things that you already love on a regular basis, one of the by-products can be making and saving money.  Live Large folks!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Living Large

ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder - Living Large
I love being a parent to my kids and sharing my insights on parenting issues through ParentUnplugged.  It wouldn’t have been possible for me to spend enough time with my own kids, though, to come up with my ideas on parenting, had my wife and I not made the unpopular decision to change the way we view money. 

Six years ago, we found ourselves stuck in a financial mindset we had never actually subscribed to, yet felt obliged to perpetuate, because that’s just what people in auto-pilot do in attempts to keep the plates spinning.  We were living in an affluent neighborhood with big houses, big cars, big spending appetites, and big debt.  From the outside we looked happy, and we were, to an extent.  We had family, friends, and enough material things to keep a small country afloat.  But that happiness could only go so far as we were buckling under the overwhelming debt we had unconsciously accumulated. 

Everyone has their own reasons for taking on more than they can handle, but in our case, we had lost 2 pregnancies and we simply stifled our grief by spending money or shit that didn’t matter.  You name it, we bought it:  possessions for ourselves, our child, and our pet, meals out, entertainment, trips, experiences, new cars, new hair, and even a $40K “investment property” that is worth about thirty-seven cents on the open market today. While we could afford to pay the piper for all of our purchases by utilizing payments on multiple revolving or installment credit lines, we were just skating by and not saving a dime.  We were actually building debt daily at an alarming rate. 

ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder - Living Large
Sensing potential disaster, I picked up a copy of Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover.  I read it cover to cover on a 2-hour flight and de-boarded the plane with a new lease on life.  The chapters didn’t offer any fancy tricks or specialized financial advice, but simply supported the main concept of the book, which is to spend less or make more to reach financial security.  More specifically, reducing debt, creating surplus, dismissing the use of credit, and most importantly, living only on the cash in your pocket. 

I set off on a new course immediately, and within a year’s time, we had paid off over 80% of our accumulated debt, abandoned my job and its six-figure income, which allowed me to stay home and raise my own kids.  For the past five years, my family has been enjoying a quality of life I didn’t really realize was possible, almost exclusively within a one wage-earner family model.  Creatively saving money and generating income is now engrained in my being, and I’ve spent so many hours sharing my ideas and experiences with friends on my couch and strangers in line at the store, that I decided it’s time to start incorporating it into my writing.  

I’m passionate about balancing the ideas of living comfortably within my means and whole-heartedly enjoying those things in life that are most important to me.  I call it Living Large.  I’ve developed quite a diverse playbook of how to pinch pennies without much effort and how to bring in extra money without really working.  So look out for my Living Large suggestions in upcoming posts, as well as your favorite parenting stories.  Thank you for your continued support via feedback, comments, and sharing my blog and its posts. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

NO is Good

Parentunplugged - Stacy Snyder - No is Good
Contrary to popular belief, saying no is a good thing in parenting.  Hearing NO teaches kids boundaries, helps manage expectations, and promotes creative thinking.  While it’s easy to use common sense to make parenting decisions for infants, babies, and toddlers, as they grow into more rational and verbal creatures, it becomes more difficult to say no to their specific requests.  But unless you subscribe to a 24/7 kid-based free-for-all, it’s a necessary step.

In life, it’s usually easier to say yes to a question or request asked of you, than to say no, as we don’t want to ruffle feathers or come across as naysayers.  This is especially true of parenting, as often the response from a child to a “we’ll see,” or an outright “no” is raw disappointment, crying, fit-throwing, anger, or back-talking.  No parent openly invites that behavior.  It’s easy to see how the path of least resistance can win out from ease alone.  However, saying no to an appeal from your child is often required to keep him safe, healthy, or in check with his values. Sometimes a NO is needed simply because the request doesn’t fit into the family’s schedule, budget, or priorities, which might pull an ever stronger response from a kid, especially an older child with the ability to reason and the want to debate the issue.  But saying NO is good.

Your kid, whether 2, 10, 12, or 20, is not going to suffer any great consequence over a few appropriately denied requests.  In fact, it’s a character builder for them to hear no.  What our kids learn today they take with them into adulthood.   Consider a 3-year-old child who tantrums every time a parent says no, so said parent learns to work around the situation by always caving to the toddler’s request, even if the want is not beneficial for her.  As she gets older and goes to elementary school, she will not only expect to always have her demands granted by other students and teachers, but will be ill-equipped to handle her disappointment, as she’s had no experience self-soothing, nor been forced to invent new ways to satisfy or re-address her needs.  Her public disenchantment in front of other children and adults will likely cause strife for all involved, plus she will be behind the eight ball when it comes to making good judgment calls herself, as she’s never had to consider the limitations of behavior.  Imagine how this ends if left unchecked year after year.  A parent constantly giving the green light at home to his kid’s every whim, a trajectory which will eventually cross paths with teachers, other kids, parents, the workforce at large, and society as a whole, bestows his child a grave injustice.  The adult she’ll grow into will be ill-equipped to handle the real world, where boundaries and disappointment are real and necessary, and those who can’t handle peaks and valleys and sharp turns of life’s roller coaster without tossing their cookies will be hurled off the track entirely.  And where do those grown kids end up?  You guessed it, right back in their parents’ home or under their parents’ financial umbrella, because that’s the only environment they’ll know how to negotiate.

Set them up for success and send them out into the world as competent adults by sticking to your gut parenting decisions today.  Don’t let your teen’s threat of hating you, your fear of going off the beaten path of what other parents are doing, or your worry that you’ll disappoint your child, cloud your resolve.  You know what’s right for your kids. Follow your gut and make decisions that work for your family, even if that means sometimes, or a lot of the time, saying NO to your child.  Encourage them to keep asking, share with them your reasoning for your responses when appropriate, and support their decision to be mad at you for yours.  They’ll understand it one day, and be grateful you took the time to make the tough choices on their behalf. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wave Your Freak Flag

“This must be your blog post, right Mom?” my 11-year-old asked me, trying to hide the guilty smirk on her face as she handed me the page from the printer I’d asked her to retrieve for me.

“It’s not,” I replied with a matching grin, “it’s for a Live Lit reading I’m doing tonight at Martyrs' tonight called Louder Than a Mom; it’s like telling a story in front of an audience.  Why do you ask?”

“Well, I saw a few bad words on the page and I know you like to be pretty ‘animated’ when you write,” she teased.

That kid’s got my number.   I stopped dead in my tracks for a minute wondering if maybe I should shield her from my writing, its topics, and my language.  While I do try to curb my infamous sailor mouth when I’m around my kids, I’d say one-tenth of my foul language still seems to slip out accidentally, which I feel slightly bad about. 

But then I started thinking about when my daughter was first born.  My wife and I made a conscious decision over a decade ago to make lifestyle changes that would not only be good for us, but that would also affect our children.  Since we were going to be responsible for shaping young minds, we didn’t want to start off by passing down bad habits.  We resolved to lay off drinking to excess, abandon the drug use, ease up on the overall profanity, and finally desert the nicotine, which admittedly took a bit longer to conquer than the other modifications.  We left the core of our personalities, but softened the exterior shell of rowdiness.  

We grew, and are still growing, into our current-day selves.  I am a dumbed-down version of the freak show I once was, in some regards, but that’s allowed me to open up my mind and let other ideas in that help keep the three-ring-circus that I love going in a more authentic fashion.  No matter how many ‘edits’ have been made to my persona, the mouth like a truck driver has persevered, as well as my basal need to poke fun at and reiterate insane stories about myself and the other loonies with which I consort.  These attributes are part of me.  I like being this person.  I’m proud of who I am, even though I still make bad decisions from time to time, and probably always will. So there’s no need to shelter my daughters from my crux. 

I shared with my daughter the story about my therapist I would be performing that night and explained to her that I find the use of profanity most effective from time to time.  She thought my story was funny and my choice of vocabulary unneeded, yet expected.  She's already exploring who she wants to be as a person, and I’m hoping that by being myself in front of her and her sister, I will help each of them feel more comfortable developing and wearing their own brand of personality with pride.

Don't forget to watch my Louder Than a Mom performance above.  And while you're at it, come to one of the next performances on Monday, November 24 or Monday, December 15, as it's a load of laughs!  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Take a Closer Look

ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder - Take a Closer Look
I could hear the crying from the girls’ bedroom the second I climbed up the basement stairs. 

What this time? I thought to myself, exasperated.  My 5-year-old is having a hard time these days with her emotions.  Tears seem to be a daily occurrence and the source usually has something to do with her older sister.  They share a room, and while they get along famously and still play together on most days, they also get on each others’ nerves greatly; they both like to be in control.

I climbed the ladder to my daughter’s bunk and found her crumpled in the corner, wailing in misery as big crocodile tears ran down her face. 

“What’s wrong, Sweet Girl?” I inquired at eye level.

Through heaving sobs, she managed to convey to me that her older sister had moved her babies’ crib out of the room and she wanted them to stay because she likes her babies to sleep in her room with her. 

Assessing the situation before I uttered a word, I saw her twin doll babies lying at the foot of her bed, instead of situated in the monstrous double-decker crib, that as of a few moments ago, sat at the entrance of their bedroom, but now was nowhere to be found.  The side-by-side double stroller that she’d been pushing throughout the house for the past few days was nowhere to be seen either.  I questioned my older daughter with my eyes without uttering a word.

“There’s just not room in this small bedroom for all of your baby stuff and for both of us.   I have to move the stroller from in front of my closet just so I can get dressed every day.  And the crib is blocking the door from closing at night.  They just have to go downstairs with the rest of our toys,” her big sister explained too her patiently.

Made sense to me.  I didn’t need to intervene here, I told myself. 

“It’s okay, babe.  There’s no need to be upset.  It’s not a big deal; we just need to move the baby stuff downstairs.”

As new tears rolled down her face,  my baby girl whimpered, “But it’s a big deal to me!”

Stopped in my tracks.  She was right.  It was a big deal to her.  It was my kindergartener’s entire world.  Babies.

Although she has numerous dollies and strollers and play pack n plays and carriers, she’d demonstrated patience and restraint for the past year, saving her weekly family economy money from performing chores and meeting responsibilities, in order to buy twin bitty babies and a twin stroller.  She’s talked about it every single day for the last year:  what she’ll do with them, what she’ll name them, where she’ll take them, and how it will feel to have twins. 

Over the weekend, she was overjoyed to open an early birthday gift of the coveted babies and stroller.  She took no mind of the fact that one of the dolls, baby Elizabeth, was her own 10-year-old hand-me-down from her sister, of whom she’s been playing with for the past few years.  She didn’t mind that the 2nd “twin” was simply bought used to match.  She didn’t notice the wear and tear on the pre-owned stroller t either.  All she cared about was those sweet little baby sisters that needed a Mommy to love them.  She quickly chose the name Eliza for the 2nd doll, and has spent the past 4 days adoringly caring for those dolls.  She’d roped her older sister into the excitement as well.  My 11-year-old has played with my little one and the babies nonstop without complaint, and had even carved out a space for the baby paraphernalia in their tiny shared bedroom.  She even offered to care for the twins while home sick from school earlier in the week, as the twins' mom would have to leave them to attend kindergarten.

As all good things usually come to an end, my pre-teen daughter had finally grown tired of the doting and was ready to move on.  My younger daughter, however, was still madly in love with the idea of caring for those babies.

We eventually came to a solution that worked for both girls, moving the stroller to the basement, and rearranging some furniture to accommodate the crib so Elizabeth and Eliza can sleep in the same room with their mommy. 

But that one sentence keeps ringing through my ears.  It’s a big deal to me.   The idea that something so nominal to one person, could so greatly affect another, is something to pay attention to.  It seems that if we could figure out what matters and what doesn’t to an individual, a group of people, or an entire region, we could solve so many problems before they even arise.  It explains so much about our society:  who we surround ourselves with, what motivates us, when we take action and when we don’t, where we draw a line in the sand, why we make the decisions we do, and how we react to certain situations….all based on what we hold near and dear. 

As a parent, we oftentimes become so accustomed to putting out fires we’ve seen flame before and barking out instructions to solve familiar problems that we forget the most important step in the equation:  assessing the situation.  Sometimes it’s an open and closed case and what you see is what you get, i.e stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.  But the majority of situations require gathering information we cannot see, which often requires listening.  Seems easy enough, but with our buy-in to this fast paced society that surrounds us, we often bypass this step in the name of efficiency or share it with other tasks, thereby diluting its effectiveness. 

There’s not a one amongst us who doesn’t want to really know their child, or their spouse or loved one, for that matter:  who they are and what makes them tick.  We sometimes think, though, that we already know the scoop based on what we see or what we’ve experienced in the past.  Most people change or alter their focal points, though, over time, and in the case of children, it can happen in the blink of an eye.  What was crucial last week can be replaced with a more vital stance by week’s end.  I find that every time I think I know anything, I am quickly reminded that I don’t know squat.  So today I’m pledging to listen, not just hear, but really process, what the people around me say, instead of assuming the situation, tone, or sentiment.  I’m going to view each interaction as an opening into the inner workings of the person, which only enhances my ability to better communicate and care for each.  Want to take a closer look with me?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Story of My Life

The Story of My Life - Parentunplugged - Stacy Snyder
Fifth-grade Flash Mob Dance practice trumps the wedding registration party at Macy’s.  The entertainer I’ve loved for years is never asked to perform in lieu of a surprise song from our kids.  The venue we’ve chosen is a bar and leads almost every guest to ask in advance “What is the appropriate attire?” to which I am forced to standardly reply “Same thing you’d wear to any other fucking wedding!”  A head full of lice shows up just hours before out-of-town guests arrive for our in-home night-before –the nuptials party for 50.  And let’s not forget my therapist, or my life-line, as I like to call her, has been on indefinite medical leave for weeks, leaving me scrambling for sanity.

It sounds like typical wedding-planning drama to me.  Worthy of a reality show?  Probably not.  But definitely makes for a good story.  I love good stories.  They’re pretty much my mainstay for survival.  A tall tale to make you laugh when you need a release, an embellished version of an embarrassing incident to make someone feel like they’re not alone in their humiliation, or the simple recanting of a family legend, worn smooth over the years by being told so often, and bringing warmth to your heart.

This past year I’ve been accumulating an insane chapter of my life story, as I’ve been manically planning an organized event that I didn’t want:  a wedding.  A fancy, indulgent, corny public display and affirmation of my love for another person was never one of my wishes as a child. I never got into happily-ever-after fairy-tale wedding stories aimed at little girls and I never flipped through bridal magazines as a teen or young adult for anything other than a new trendy hairstyle while waiting for my turn at the salon.  And I certainly wasn’t upset when my accountant told my partner and me many moons ago that we were ‘better off’ from a tax-standpoint being in an unmarried gay relationship than in a traditional marriage. 

It’s not that I have anything against a committed union of individuals promising their love to each other for eternity.  From a young age, I learned to love hard and freely, which I have continued to do through adulthood.  But I’ve never associated love and/or passion with marriage.  Maybe it’s because the modeling marriage of my parents was not ideal, or maybe it was because I wanted nothing more than to claim my independence, or maybe it’s because deep down I knew that I was gay and that gay folks couldn’t get married.  Suffice to say that it was just never a dream of mine.  No daydreams about what it would be like to walk down an isle in a white dress while Ava Maria was being sung, nor to be announced as Mr. & Mrs. Blah Blah Blah, nor to be recognized by church and state as legally wed.  That being said, I feel as if I’ve been reaping the important benefits of a marriage for the past fifteen years with my partner:  commitment, devotion, and love through thick and thin. 

Getting married, however, has ALWAYS been an aspiration for my now-wife. The ceremony, the dress, the giving away of the bride, the ‘I Do’s, the big-ass reception, and everything else fairy-tale wedding-oriented had always been a pipedream for her.  In an effort to meet that notion some seven years ago, I’d secretly planned a private commitment ceremony on the beach in Maui, complete with rings, flowers, a minister, and gorgeous photos that still line our bedroom walls.  But in my book, we were same as hitched way before then, dating back to the day we decided to grow our family, first with a dog and then with kids.  No matter how you sliced it, though, I thought we were covered.

Yet in the months leading up to the push toward marriage equality in Illinois last year, my girlfriend and I spent many any hour talking about what we would do if the laws did change.  We both felt we would be crazy not to get married, even if just for the ease of dealing with external forces when it came to shared children, property, and resources.  We decided a small informal ceremony with just us and our two kids would be nice and would be a compromise between both of our desires.  We were unsure if the four of us would take a little trip afterwards or host a celebration party if we decided to include our friends and family.  You know, something small and intimate.

But the day that our gay marriage law was passed, all of our plans went out the window.  Wrought with emotion that trumped any ideas we had laid out, my partner started mapping out her big fantasy wedding.  I was stunned with the news, as I truly didn’t think that the law would pass and stick so quickly:  I was taken off guard.  It’s possible I may have bought into the idea of a traditional wedding celebration as well, but it’s hard to trace back to where reality ends and illusion begins.  The one thing I do know is that within a few weeks, I was overwhelmed and uncomfortable with the path that was being paved for this wedding.  In addition to me having no want or need for the convention of marriage outside of practicality, I had no interest in taking on the expense nor the planning of such an event.  Over and over again I was adamant with my partner that this had to be nipped in the bud.  She’d agree amicably, but then I’d look into her eyes and see the hope looming there that maybe I would change my mind;  I am a lot of things, but a dream crusher is not one of them.

So for the next nine month, I vacillated daily between dedicated practical planner of a big, important event and anxious, sulking teenager who was “over it” because she didn’t get her way.  It was a real internal struggle for me that would often bust out into my daily life, via coffee talk with my friends, frequent bitch sessions with my soon-to-be wife and weekly appointments with the therapist I begrudgingly hired to help me work through the opposing parts of myself.

The Story of My Life - Parentunplugged - Stacy Snyder
At the end of the day, my wife's girlhood vision made it to actuality, albeit slightly different than imagined in her head, yet every ounce as fulfilling and meaningful as she’d thought it would be.  But the kicker is that the wedding itself ended up being for me everything that I ever wanted in life, but never knew I needed.  Surrounded by so many of our friends and family, yet each one of them included in the intimacy of our family being joined in matrimony, it was nothing short of awesome.  The love and bond I shared on that day for my wife, my family, and every loved one in attendance, will stay etched in my soul.  It’s already been tested with the trials , tribulations, and sometimes mundane existence of married life (please don’t forget  we’ve already been together 15 years and the shit that comes along with that doesn’t just change overnight) and that light is burning just as bright. 

Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have kicked and screamed as hard as I did against the idea of marriage if I knew then the way I’d feel now.  But that’s part of the beauty of the story of our lives:  sometimes we can’t recognize we’re on top of the world until we’ve traveled to the depths of its core.