Friday, July 27, 2012

Finding success in single parenthood

From today's Briefing:

On the eve of my husband’s risky brain biopsy, I spoke aloud to one of my best friends the words buried in my heart since age 7.
“I don’t want to be a single mom.”
I was a child of the ’70s in the most predictable way. My parents split up in the decade that saw U.S. divorce rates double. They divorced the same year that Kramer vs. Kramer was a big-screen hit. My sister and I were statistics — about 1million American kids were affected by divorce in 1979.
Our journey was rough. We survived, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, and certainly not on my own children.
So I had a foolproof plan. Marry the right man, the person with whom I could imagine spending my whole life. And I did.
But the foolproof plan didn’t allow for biopsy results revealing an inoperable, incurable brain tumor.
All of the sudden, Steve, too, was a statistic, one of about 12,000 Americans diagnosed in 2008 with a glioblastoma. The surgeon who met with his family and me just after that biopsy told us that patients with Steve’s kind of tumor die within an average of four to six months.
Doctors told us to ignore the statistics. They were treating a patient, not a number.
We listened and we believed, and with the help of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, other drugs, prayer, good wishes and an incredible zeal for life, Steve survived for 18 months.
He beat the odds.
Still, almost three years ago I became a single mom, taking on the role I’d dreaded almost my whole life.
We’re surviving, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
The odds are against us.
Take, for example, last week’s Slate article by W.Bradford Wilcox: “The Kids Are Not Really Alright: It’s worse to be raised by a single mother, even if you’re not poor.”
Wilcox describes the difficulties facing children in single-mom homes.
“Single mothers, even from wealthier families, have less time. They are less likely to be able to monitor their kids. They do not have a partner who can relieve them when they are tired or frustrated or angry with their kids.
“This isn’t just a question of taking kids to the array of pampered extracurricular activities that many affluent, two-parent families turn to; it’s about the ways in which two sets of hands, ears, and eyes generally make parenting easier.”
Those words and the statistics he cites on incarceration, teen pregnancy and poverty cause a little anxiety to rise in my chest.
I can’t spend too much time fretting about it, though. Worrying consumes energy, and, as Wilcox says, single moms are short on energy.
Instead of worrying, I remind myself that we are not a number.
We are a tiny nucleus with a network of nearby friends and family members, neighbors and church members, coworkers and teachers.
Cooper and Katie have only one living parent, but they have a solid foundation of unconditional love and support from two.
Yes, my time is limited. I do get tired and frustrated. But I also have learned, out of necessity, to ask for help and to accept the unsolicited kind.
I’ve cemented nonnegotiable values and standards and learned to tolerate compromise in others.
My children have more responsibilities at home than most of their peers, but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. They rely on a strong faith, and I am certain they know they are loved.
Would it be better if Cooper and Katie’s dad were still alive? Absolutely.
Are they doomed because they’re left with only me? Absolutely not.
We plan on beating the odds.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sounds of silence in my head

From today's Briefing:

It’s a blessing and a curse that I’ve got a constant countdown ticker in my head.
Vacation begins in 13 days. That’s less than two weeks to get ahead on work projects, create a checklist, gather everything on the checklist, pack — all worth it for a blissful week mostly free of responsibility.
School begins in 37 days. That means I’ve spent about 50 days in denial about how to prepare for a son going to middle school. I can no longer ignore questions such as:
Will Cooper ride the bus to and from school? Or should we arrange some sort of elaborate carpool system that minimizes middle school bus drama?
Will he be able to balance a tougher course load and his extracurricular commitments? Or do we need to consider dropping something?
Will I hire, as strongly recommended, a private tutor for clarinet, adding even more to the monthly cost of being in band? Or can he just rely on classroom instruction?
While Cooper heads to a new campus for the first time in six years, Katie will begin Year 3 at our neighborhood elementary school. After seven weeks of summer la-la land, it’s time to start gathering a new lunchbox, tennis shoes that fit and a first-day-of-school outfit that won’t suffocate her in 100-degree heat.
That should be enough thinking ahead. But I can’t turn the ticker off.
I’m plotting Girl Scout meetings and PTA events. Orthodontia appointments and Thanksgiving break.
I’ve had plenty of time — too much time? — to think this week. For the first time in more than a decade, I’ve been home, all alone, for days at a time.
Cooper has been at camp in East Texas. Katie has spent the week with her grandparents. And I’ve rediscovered life without children in the house.
Most nights have included dinner out with friends, followed by eerie silence and unusually clean living areas at home.
My morning routine is truncated. I get to sleep in a few minutes later, as I’m not preparing elaborate breakfasts or prodding children to get dressed, brush their teeth, stop arguing, make beds, put on shoes, get in the car.
On paper, especially after 50 days of no school, it sounds kind of amazing. In reality, it’s too still, too empty.
And it gets me thinking of another countdown — to the days when my children will have grown up and moved out.
While my friend Jen watched her son pack his trunk for this week’s camp, she had a moment of panic. She flashed forward seven years, when that child will be packing for his first year of college.
So now my countdown timer has two new settings — seven years before Cooper leaves for college, 11 for Katie.
I’d like to imagine that I will spend these next few years solely living in the moment. But I know myself better.
I’m likely to fret over details related to school, child care, vacations, appointments, practices, meetings, exams, applications and issues related to teen years that I can’t even predict. I’m learning to accept that that’s just who I am.
And just as important, I’m learning to turn off — or at least try to turn off — the planning and countdown mode to make room for enjoy-it-while-it-lasts mode.
That means appreciating the silence when it comes without worrying about too much solitude later. And appreciating the chaos when it surrounds me without wishing it away.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, July 13, 2012

Birthday party project offers gift of celebration

From today's Briefing:

We’ve just wrapped up birthday season at the Damm house.

Katie was feted with a Junie B. Jones-themed party at the house, lunch with her grandparents and dinner with family friends.

A few days later, Cooper and his friends played laser tag and video games, we had dinner with family and then another dinner out on his actual birthday.

They feel plenty celebrated and loved.

It’s that sort of feeling that Paige Chenault, a mom and professional event planner, is working to re-create for homeless children in Dallas.

This January, she launched the Birthday Party Project (, a nonprofit group that throws birthday parties for homeless children — kids who otherwise wouldn’t get a cupcake or balloon or anything to recognize their special day, much less three distinct celebrations. Parties are held monthly at partner shelters (two so far, with another on board for August).

I spoke with Paige this week about the project. Here are excerpts from our conversation, including information on how families can help.

What is the goal of the Birthday Party Project? 
Our mission is to celebrate the lives of homeless children. I want them to feel special. We’re just in Dallas right now. Our goal is to grow in North Texas.

What are your impressions of the needs of Dallas’ homeless? 
Homelessness is on the rise. Shelters are at maximum capacity. Their needs are on an everyday level. They need family time. The kids are craving time to sit around a table with family, to interact with other kids. The moms, they’re looking for jobs and trying to do better for their children and families. They need people to love on them and accept them.

Why are celebrations important to you? 
At the root of all of this for me is that I grew up in a very loving, great, encouraging family that didn’t have a lot. Our celebration wasn’t about the presents or the balloons, but our parents made us feel very special that day. In our home, they were very encouraging with their words. I know how my parents struggled to make celebrations happen for us. The Birthday Party Project’s very first birthday party was for Micah. He turned 12. It was his first birthday party ever.

How can families help with the project? 
We certainly want hands. Our 4-year-old daughter, Lizzie, has been at every single birthday party. A birthday party is a celebration with friends, and we’re making friendships.

One hundred percent of any money given goes straight to birthday parties and supplies. We will take financial contributions. We also need toys for ages 1 to 18. We like to give gifts that aren’t necessary items but fun items — a $30 item that’s all about them.

We would love to have gift cards to Sam’s and Costco to buy cakes, birthday party supplies, crafts. Each kid has their own individual cake. They get a candle and a birthday badge. They get a tiara or a crown. It’s all about them.

How do homeless children respond to the parties?
The kids love it. They get excited. They look forward to this time. It’s fun to see their faces again. I like building relationships with these kids and making connections with families.

How do you reconcile the two extremes of Dallas — those who can pay for the big events that you plan and those who can’t afford a cake for their child?
 I have learned along the way that people in Dallas are generous. People give in very different ways. They spend a lot of money to give big weddings and celebrate their families, and they’re incredibly generous with their time and money in other ways.

When you understand the world is bigger than you, it’s a lot easier to put yourself out there. Very simple acts make a very big impact. It doesn’t take much to light candles or play jump rope or to make these kids feel special.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Nasher

One of the loveliest spots in all of Dallas is the Nasher Sculpture Center. (And I hope it stays that way despite all the trouble at the adjacent Museum Tower.)

We've been admiring art there since it opened in 2003. When Cooper was very young, he met (the now late) Ray Nasher at the center and told him "thank you" for the collection.

Steve and I had a membership one year -- his final year on earth, actually. I wanted Steve to be able to enjoy the beauty whenever he wanted, even if only for a 10-minute visit. (I love the memories from this visit.)

The first Saturday of every month is free, thanks to a partnership with Target. The day always includes hands-on activities, story time and family tours.

Cooper, Katie and I visited for about 90 minutes on Saturday morning -- before the heat was unbearable and before a birthday party (for Noe) and a visit with friends (Jackie and Sydney).

Patrons can walk through "Kink," a piece by Ernesto Neto. 
"Squares with Two Circles" 
All kinds of insects make their home in the lily pad pond.
"Garden Fork (Red)"
"Garden Fork (Red)"
I love how it blends in and stands out among the trees.
"Eviva Amore" 
(I can't find the name of this one.) 
One of the activities was creating a puppet of your future self.
Neither child had trouble deciding what to create. 
Katie made an artist, with a blue and orange dress, paintbrush and palette.
Future Katie was complete long before Future Cooper. 
Katie and Future Katie get acquainted while Cooper finishes Future Cooper.
Future Cooper is a science teacher. He wears a tie and holds an erupting volcano in his left hand.
Future Cooper and Future Katie are friends.

Before church this morning

Friday, July 06, 2012

Confidence is better to wear than brand names

From today's Briefing:

So far, and I realize it’s relatively early in my parenting career, my children aren’t brand conscious.
They’ve never asked for a particular brand of running shoe or blue jeans or T-shirt. Cooper has never stepped foot in Hollister or Abercrombie. Katie likes to browse at the front of Justice only because that’s where the flashy toys are.
As long as their closets are filled with comfortable clothes, they don’t complain.
My own closet is filled with too many clothes — comfortable and otherwise — and I’m in the process of weeding out and giving away.
Hanging in the middle of my short-sleeve section is one very soft, well-loved shirt that I haven’t worn in years but don’t plan on parting with.
There’s a story behind that shirt.
When I was Cooper’s age, I was brand conscious, mostly because I owned nothing with any recognizable logo. My thin wardrobe came from places like TG&Y and Weiner’s while all around me were girls clothed in Gloria Vanderbilt and Izod.
My mom worked as a housekeeper, and sometimes the women she cleaned for would send home a bag of hand-me-downs for me and my sister.
I didn’t look forward to these worn-out gifts and don’t remember actually wearing any of them — until the day Mom came home with a soft, peach-colored Polo shirt with an aqua-colored Ralph Lauren polo player stitched onto the chest.
This was the most expensive, peer-approved brand I knew of in sixth grade.
I didn’t even know where to buy such a shirt, and here it was, in our home, ready for me to wear.
I didn’t even care that there was a tiny hole on the belly. I assumed that’s why it was given away — nothing so nice had ever been in the discard bag before — and I was thankful for that blemish.
The very next day I wore that peach Polo with my no-name blue jeans. I stood at the nearby cluster of mailboxes with other trailer park kids to wait for the school bus to take us into town.
I exhibited excellent posture that morning — until the snobbiest girl in the history of trailer parks joined our group.
She sauntered from her family’s tiny trailer house to our cluster gathered on the edge of the gravel road, wearing her usual mix of brand names (a dichotomy I still don’t understand).
She studied me from head to foot back to my chest and said with a snarl, “That’s not your shirt.”
I reflexively covered the telltale hole with my arm, turned bright red, slouched my shoulders, averted my eyes to the rough ground and waited in silence for the bus.
Despite my neighbor’s disdain toward the hand-me-down shirt, I kept on wearing it. I wore it as long as it would cover the length of my belly. I had to retire my one and only real Polo shirt sometime in seventh grade.
The summer after I graduated college, I was browsing in a department store just a few miles from that trailer park. In the women’s department was a rainbow of Polo shirts. Included in the selection: one soft, peach-colored shirt with an aqua-colored polo player stitched on the chest.
There was no hole in the belly.
I lifted my shoulders up and back, walked to the register and wrote a check for the full price of that shirt. I wore it for years, every time remembering that rude girl and how quickly she’d deflated my confidence.
The shirt’s a little dated now — the sleeves are puffier than today’s sleeker models — and I’m content to let it take up a sliver of space in my closet.
And while I have my share of overpriced items based partly on the name attached, I’m also content to wear no-name T-shirts and blue jeans — with confidence.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Cooper is 11!

Poor Cooper. His birthday is the day after our wedding anniversary, which apparently means I'm not as faithful in blogging his birthday mornings as I should be. I hope that one day, when he figures out this blog exists and reads all the entries, his feelings aren't hurt.

I love this kindhearted, gentle, quick-witted, super smart, amazing, loyal and crazy tall child more than I ever imagined possible.

Cooper is 9: July 3, 2010.
Cooper is 10: July 3, 2011.
And today ...

Cooper is 11: July 3, 2012! 
Happy Birthday, dear Cooper D!