Suzanne Rust

A Father’s Journey Through Losing His Wife to Cancer

Written on August 12, 2014 at 2:14 pm , by

Four years ago, Bruce Ham lost his wife, Lisa, and his three young girls lost a mother, but with love, music and silly moments, their family is still strong. Ham shares their story in his book, Laughter, Tears and Braids: A Father’s Journey Through Losing His Wife to Cancer, and opens his home to us. 

Your family, in three words?

My youngest daughter gave me one word, “weird.” I prefer creative, humorous and close.

Parenting Style

Although I’ve been told, “Be a parent, not a friend,” I am their friend, big-time. But I also have pretty high expectations. They don’t get away with much. I was once told by my oldest daughter that I was the strictest dad in America. I believe that was slightly exaggerated and specifically tied to a desire to have an extended curfew.

Breaking Bread

It is critical that we eat together as many nights a week as possible. That’s our time to unwind, share and laugh. Some of our best stories about my wife come out at the dinner table.  I try, but I am not a cook. My last-minute go-to food is a store-bought smoothie.

Sweet Spot

We have an island in the middle of our kitchen, which is smack-dab in the center of our house. That table is the hub: It’s where we eat, where homework is completed, where friends gather, where I write. When Lisa was alive, she always wanted to eat dinner at the island.  I insisted on the table in the great room. When she died, it hurt too much to sit at the table with her seat empty. So almost all our meals have been at the island over the past four years.

The Void

My girls are very forgiving of my inadequacies when it comes to filling their mother’s shoes. But I have to believe the void that has been left is our biggest challenge. It comes out at times through tears. It comes out at times through frustration—like when they are the last kids picked up at the after-school program because I’m working late or when I totally forget they have a field trip. Lisa would have never forgotten something like that.

Holding On

I am amazed at the resiliency of my girls. I’m amazed at their flexibility. It would have been so easy for them to shut down or to find a path that wouldn’t have been healthy. Instead, I have three daughters who are strong. One is the student body president. One spends time really trying to love and help others; her heart is as big as the ocean. The other is a comedian and actress. What an incredible combination.

Taking a Moment

I escape through exercise. I jog or go to my room and do push-ups and pull-ups. That’s how I clear my head.

Weekend Warriors

The first three years after Lisa died, I did everything I possibly could to avoid a “normal” weekend. It was just too hard to be in the house that long. It’s easier now. It seems like I’m constantly driving—getting the kids to where they need to be. And about once a quarter, we have a massive sleepover with 15 or more girls at the house. That’s always an interesting evening. We’re also very involved in our church on Sundays.

Musical Interludes

Lisa had a beautiful voice and so do all my girls. My wife listened to one kind of music at a time. Winter was country, summer was pop, and you didn’t even think about turning on anything but the Christmas radio station after Thanksgiving. But country music most reminds us of her. She loved the Dixie Chicks—”There’s Your Trouble” most reminds us of Lisa.

Remains of the Day

I still tuck each of my kids into bed at night. We laugh, sing, sometimes we cry. With my oldest, we tend to just talk. Sometimes we’ll chat for an hour or more. That is what I most look forward to every single day.

Lisa’s Girls

My oldest daughter, Bailey, has Lisa’s leadership skills. She sees a challenge and tackles it. She’s not scared of anything. My middle daughter looks just like Lisa. She has so many of her mother’s expressions and mannerisms; she is a ninth-grade version of her mother. My youngest has my wife’s carefree attitude about life.  There isn’t much that gets that kid down. She’s happy, just like her mom.

Missing Pieces

It’s the little things. I miss dancing with her. She had a beautiful voice. She used to sing along with the radio in the car and I would listen to her. If she knew I was listening, she’d stop. But sometimes I’d act like I wasn’t paying her any attention, and all the while I’d be in wonder at what was coming out of her mouth. I miss that. I miss all her clothes in my closet and her Coco by Chanel. And her flannel pajamas that I used to complain about.

A Mother’s Pride

I think she’d be proud—of her girls and of me. Proud that we’ve put the pieces of our life back together after it all was torn apartRight before she died, she told me that she had the easy part. That if she died, she would be in peace. She told me that I had the hard part: trying to move on with our three daughters. I didn’t believe her at the time, but now I know what she was talking about. It’s been beautiful to build this sort of relationship with my children, and it’s been very, very hard to move forward.

Lessons

I’m a better man, a better father, than I ever imagined I could be. When you lose someone you love that much, it puts life into perspective. I treasure my time here on earth. I appreciate the small things, like holding hands or eating dinner with my kids. I work smarter; there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I have much more empathy for others. And I’ve discovered that whatever life throws at me, I can handle—which surprises the heck out of me.

 

 

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Coding While Female: Getting Our Girls on the Technology Bandwagon

Written on June 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm , by

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about coding in the news lately, and perhaps wondered what it is. Simply put, coding is the act of writing a program using a programming language. This is what makes it possible for us to create things like websites, apps and computer software, but I recently discovered that coding is so much more. It basically opens the gate to an array of exciting creative careers, but unfortunately, women aren’t getting as involved as we ought to be.

According to the National Science Board, women make up a mere 26% of computer science and mathematics professionals in the United States. Female participation in computer science has actually declined to 18% from its peak of 37% in the mid-1980s. This is disquieting because STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math) are expected to grow by 17% from 2008 through 2018, compared to 9.8% for non-STEM jobs. There are some incredible opportunities out there, and women are severely underrepresented. We have to change that, starting with our daughters.

Personally, I’ve been bugging my 14-year-old for the past year. “Look at these crazy stats! Don’t you want to learn to code?” Her response: “No, Mom, it’s not me.” Argh. This conversation went on and off. I didn’t want to push her if she felt it wasn’t her passion, but I wasn’t quite convinced that she understood all that coding encompasses or all that you can do with it, because quite frankly, I didn’t either. Well, Google to the rescue.

Mindy Kaling speaks on stage at the “Google’s Made With Code” launch event to inspire girls to code.

Last Thursday we were lucky enough to attend Google’s Made w/ Code launch here in New York, and it turned out to be a game changer for both mother and daughter. Host Mindy Kaling, special guest Chelsea Clinton and an outrageously talented and diverse group of women who code made a roomful of young women understand the endless possibilities. Danielle Feinberg, director of photography for Pixar, talked about her work on Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and Brave; Miral Kotb, creator and CEO of iLuminate, discussed marrying her two passions, tech and dance, in her choreography; and Erica Kochi, cofounder of UNICEF Innovation, shared how she helped spearhead the development of technology that does things like track the distribution of 63 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets in Africa.

It was pretty exhilarating.

These dynamic women managed to make coding not only more accessible as a concept but fun, and my daughter and I were finally able to grasp all that coding can do. Now I’m scrambling to find her a coding class (nothing like trying to make last-minute summer arrangements!), but I don’t mind because she is open to learning a whole new set of skills that could possibly guide her toward a fascinating, ever-evolving career.

Perhaps Kochi put it best: “Coding is not some random numbers running across a screen; it’s a powerful tool that you can use to build the world you want to see.” Start building, ladies.

 

 

 

 

Parent Shaming: Should We Criticize Will and Jada Smith for Their Parenting Skills?

Written on May 23, 2014 at 1:16 pm , by

 

Here we go with the latest episode of Celebrity Family Antics…

Over the past few years, the unconventional parenting choices of Hollywood power couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith have been under a microscope: their decision to let their children Jaden and Willow “self-govern,” allowing a then 12-year-old Willow to shave her head, permitting Jaden to unleash his views about the “evils” of education on Twitter, and their general belief in a no-punishment-zone for their teens.

However, when their latest drama, an Instagram photograph featuring 13-year-old Willow languishing on a bed with shirtless 20-year-old actor and family friend Moises Arias blew up on social media, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services took notice. They have launched an investigation on the Smith family.

Have you seen the photograph? I like to think of myself as a very open-minded person, and an open-minded parent. I lean toward a live-and-let-live philosophy, and it takes quite a bit to ruffle my feathers about other people’s choice. But I have to admit, that image did indeed ruffle them; it just didn’t look right, no matter which way I flipped it. I am not a prude, nor do I think I have a particularly dirty mind, but I tried to envision a scenario in which I would feel comfortable seeing my 14-year-old on a bed, draped at the feet of a half-naked young man, even a good friend of the family’s, and I really couldn’t.

Apparently, the couple has no issue with the photo; Pinkett-Smith has lashed out, saying that the image is not sexual in nature, and she has accused the media of acting like a bunch of pedophiles. I can’t image the authorities removing those kids from the house, but a thorough investigation is happening. I’m not sure if the situation merits such close attention. Although I am not  fully comfortable with what I saw, there is chance that a photo is a photo. Willow just hanging out with a family friend. I queried my kids for a reality check. My 21-year-old son, who tends to be the more conservative of the two, did not like what he saw, and even my 14-year-old, who didn’t immediately think it was wrong, understood how it would upset people.

I think all the uproar has, in part, to do with the fact that for so long the Smiths were seen as a golden couple who could do no wrong. Glimpses of their kids acting out a bit in the past few years have made them more human, and put a little chink in their dazzling armor. Who wants that kind of scrutiny?

Parenting is the great equalizer: You will be judged whether you live in a trailer or a mansion. I would never pretend to tell others how to raise their children, because I certainly don’t want to be told how to raise mine. As parents we all make choices that are seen, at one time or another, as unsatisfactory to other parents. For the record, I am not “parent-shaming” the Smiths, but I am scratching my head and having a bit of a what-the-heck moment with this latest conflama.

What are your feelings about it? Do you even care? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

YouTube Sensations Become Positive Online Role Models

Written on May 1, 2014 at 3:15 pm , by

Between Instagram breakups, hateful Facebook posts and viral videos of knockdown, drag-out brawls, it’s easy to be pessimistic about social media and concerned about the negative effects they can have on our children. However, YouTube sensations like Bethany Mota, Rosanna Pansino and Michelle Phan remind us that the glass can actually be more than half full.

These successful young women have taken the challenges they faced in their lives and turned them around. With the simple click of a video camera, they’ve created a platform of hope and positivity and a way to connect millions of souls. It’s no surprise that YouTube featured them in its first high-profile and multi-platform advertising campaign this past April, which included print ads on New York City subways as well as TV commercials that aired during the MTV Movie Awards and the season 7 premiere of AMC’s Mad Men.

Mota, Pansino and Phan radiate a confident, upbeat vibe that we could all use—plus they offer some good makeup and baking tips! For different reasons, these young women once felt like outsiders, but they found a way in through their videos. No, they are not talking rocket science, arguing politics or coming up with a cure for cancer, but they have created a positive following, and if they can make our kids overcome their insecurities and feel better about themselves or help them feel connected, I say that’s a good thing.

 

Mota, a California native who is now 18, was cyberbullied as a younger teen. She grew anxious and depressed to the point of not wanting to get out of bed. She felt alone and needed a place to vent, so she started to do it on YouTube, where she eventually found a family—now over 6 million strong—in the beauty and fashion world. Mota uses her channel as a platform to provide empowering messages about self-confidence to her teen followers, aka Motavators. Her straightforward tips clearly resonate with her audience.

 

Pansino, 29, who says that she was quite the nerd and gamer growing up, felt that she needed an outlet to express her awkwardness. She also inherited a knack for baking from her grandmother and decided to combine her passions. On Pansino’s channel you can watch her Nerdy Nummies videos, which are just what they sound like: She creates Minecraft Rice Crispy Treats, Lumpy Space Princess Lollipops (from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time series) and Lego Pinata Cookies. Basically, it’s an affable, goofy baker’s lovefest, and it’s resonated with almost 2 million subscribers.

 

Phan, 27, was teased at school because she looked different (her background is Vietnamese). She also had to overcome living with a father with a gambling addiction who abandoned his family, followed by an abusive stepfather. The former art school student found her escape through drawing, which eventually evolved into makeup tutorials and a huge fan base of well over 6 million subscribers. Phan now has her own line of cosmetics: EM, which (appropriately) stands for Empowering You.

 

 

Girls: A No Ceilings Conversation with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

Written on April 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm , by

“Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” It has been almost 20 years since Hillary Rodham Clinton uttered those powerful words at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, but her commitment to the cause has grown stronger over the decades.

Since leaving her job as secretary of state, Clinton has made women’s and girls’ issues a central theme of her work. Last Thursday at the Lower East Side Girls Club in New York City, Clinton, along with her daughter, Chelsea, held the first installment of Girls: A No Ceilings Conversation, a series of talks that the Clinton Foundation will conduct to get feedback from women and girls across the country and around the globe. The goal is not only to collect data and celebrate progress, but to address the challenges and gaps that impede progress. Clinton is looking to create a 21st-century agenda for equal opportunity and help ensure the full participation of women in the world.

As the mother of a teenage daughter, I was thrilled to be in that room. Few things make me happier than seeing young women achieve greatness, and few things fill me with more rage than the discrimination and injustices that girls encounter around the world. Initiatives like this one, that give girls a voice, are an excellent place to open dialogues, raise awareness and make changes.

Moderated by actress and advocate America Ferrera, the empowering discussion brought together women of all ages to discuss their experiences and their hopes for the future. Questions came from girls in the room as well as from four schools in different parts of the country via Skype and thousands of others via Twitter and  Livestream. Topics of conversation ranged from the lack of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and the value of good role models to the importance of asking for help and speaking out, our obsession with physical perfection and much more.

The event, already energized by major girl power, was further galvanized by the announcement of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy. As mothers, our greatest ambition is for our children’s dreams to be limitless. Grab the other women and girls in your life (and the men and boys as well!) and get involved in the conversation. The Clintons want to know what’s working and what isn’t so that we, as women, can gather as a team to make global changes. The Clintons cite the African saying “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We can’t think of a better mantra.

 

For more information about the No Ceilings project, view their web page here:  http://www.clintonfoundation.org/

Watch the entire conversation below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ivy League Home Run: Long Island Teen Accepted to All 8 Ivy League Universities

Written on April 2, 2014 at 5:10 pm , by

Awaiting college acceptance letters can be one of the most unnerving experiences for a high school senior, unless of course you are Kwasi Enin, the Long Island teen who scored big-time with fat envelopes from all eight Ivy League schools: Harvard, Brown, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. (Oh yes, and he also got into Duke, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Geneseo and Stony Brook University.)

Enin is the product of a public school education, at William Floyd High School in Mastic, Long Island, and is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Ghana; they made huge sacrifices for their children and expected excellence in return. Under their guidance he studied religiously and was expected never to come back with a grade below 95.

Enin took the SATs three times before he was satisfied with his score: 2,250 out of 2,400, placing him in the 99th percentile for all students taking the exam. He’s also a straight-A student who scored highly on many of his Advanced Placement exams.

In addition, Enin is a viola player, and a cappella singer and a shot-putter—in short, perfect Ivy League material. (I smiled and was relieved to hear that the 17-year-old aspiring doctor is also a fan of video games.)

I feel so proud of this kid, bless him and his parents, but it’s easy to feel like an underachiever next to such accomplishment. I’m also the parent of bright kids, but my parenting style is definitely not of the Tiger Mom persuasion, and my kids, although no slouches, just might not pull off such a dazzling Ivy League coup. I can live with that, truly I can, but I have to say Enin has certainly raised the bar for what is possible.

As a parent, how does Enin’s story make you feel? Does it inspire you? Let us know in the comments below.

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My Baby Book Fail and Other Maternal Inadequacies

Written on March 13, 2014 at 10:00 am , by

Getty Images/Seth Joel

Mothers. We are forever finding ways to beat ourselves up about something we did or didn’t do for our children, whether it’s a big or small something.

My friend Jill just recently came out with a wonderful baby book, When We Became Three: A Memory Book for the Modern Family.  As I admired her handiwork, I confessed that the subject brought up pangs of maternal inadequacy. I never made a memory book, and with two kids, now ages 14 and 20, it’s probably not going to happen.

Apparently, it runs in the family.

When I was a kid, I remember digging through our giant box of family photos and finding a memory book buried in the mix. I opened it to discover that most of the pages were blank. I asked my mom what the deal was, and she told me, “We were too busy loving you to keep track of everything!” I was an a cherished and doted on only child. My parents saved all my artwork, baby shoes and the like, but still, I would have liked to see my youth annotated and immortalized. I vowed that I would fill out such book when I had my own kids. Well, ha to that…

J’s first word was ball. He took his first steps at 13.5 months; I remember the first items of clothing on his tiny body, dinosaur onesie and pale yellow sweater.

S started her drunken sailor walk at 10.5 months; her first word was dog, and at barely two years of age, she could put together a puzzle like nobody’s business. I remember it well, but so many of the other things? Not so much. I honestly don’t recall the exact age they where when they cut their first teeth, or really put that little plastic potty to use. Too bad I didn’t write it down.

Does that make me a bad mother?

I adore my kids, really, I do.  And I am very sentimental. I have kept most of their various diplomas, awards, random cute shoes, stacks of lovely scribbles that then turned into real artwork, book reports, school papers, graduation programs, and all that good stuff.  I savor the whole experience of motherhood (well, most of it); it’s just that I don’t carry it out in an organized fashion.

While I’m at it, I never photographed my children wearing the same giant t-shirt from kindergarten to college to mark and marvel at their growth, (thanks Internet, for reminding of all of the other adorable things I never did for my children). I never wrote a loving letter to each of them on their birthdays with the intention of handing over a ribbon wrapped bundle on their 21st, but I meant to. I did take pictures of them on most first days of school; I’m not sure where all of those photos actually are, but they are most certainly not in a memory book.

Part of me wishes that I was that scrapbooking mom, who has a clearly marked, brightly colored books for each year of her children, but I know that I am not.

After many years, I compiled their first photo albums from sonogram to about the age of 10, but now that we rarely print out photos anymore, heavens knows what kind of evidence they’ll have of their tween and teen years beyond what’s trapped in mom and dad’s phone and Facebook. If they complain that there’s not more information, I’ll just use my mother’s line, “We were too busy loving you to keep track of everything!”

How do you keep track of your family memories?  Please share in the comments below.

E-Cigarette-Like Devices Change the Dynamics of Teen Smoking

Written on March 6, 2014 at 3:42 pm , by

Image courtesy of The New York Times

E-hookahs, hookah pens or vape pipes—call them what you will, but a rose by any other name still stinks, especially when it comes to teens and smoking. Subgenres of devices, virtually identical to e-cigarettes, are flooding the market, and with their array of rainbow colors and fruity flavors, they are appealing to a younger audience.

An article in this week’s New York Times highlighted this disturbing new trend.

A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 10% of high school students across the country had tried e-cigarettes in 2012, double the number from 2011. However, because many teens do not group other electronic inhalers into the same category as e-cigarettes, the CDC is concerned that they cannot properly corral the data and may be underestimating usage.

Fortunately, my friends and I weren’t really smokers in high school. I hardly ever took a puff and the smell really kept me from forming a habit, but if everyone had been dragging on smoke-free tutti-frutti-flavored vapor, I am pretty sure that more of us would have been hooked.

These new inhalers are creating the illusion that this type of smoking is harmless, when in fact most of these gadgets do contain varying degrees of nicotine. I have never heard my 14-year-old daughter talk about vape pipes and the like, but it’s a conversation we are going to have tonight.

What do you think of this new trend, and how will you discuss it with your tween or teen? Please let us know in the comments below.

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School Community Unites to Help 510-Pound Teen Get Healthy

Written on February 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm , by

Today.com

According to a study published yesterday by JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, obesity rates in children 2 to 5 years old have decreased significantly over the past decade. While that news is certainly positive, there ‘s still a very long way to go.

Obesity and bullying have sadly become epidemic in the lives of so many American children, yet the plight of a 510-pound freshman became a teachable moment for his whole Indiana high school.

After a tough year in which 14-year-old Erik Ekis lost his father suddenly, then had to undergo surgeries that left him bedridden, the teen’s life and weight spiraled out of control. He was bullied at school and miserable. Teacher Don Wettrick decided to take the time to really work with Ekis, motivating him to diet and exercise. Wettrick even managed to engage the rest of the school, and something wonderful happened: The bullying stopped and some classmates formed a walking group with Ekis.

Wettrick implemented methods that combined practical solutions and compassion on a community level, and helped create valuable lessons for both Ekis and his classmates.

Share your thoughts on this inspiring story in the comments below.

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