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August 10, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Board of Contributors: Confessions of a spy mom Board of Contributors: Confessions of a spy mom (August 10, 2005)

by Lucy Rector Filppu

We're all familiar with the term soccer moms, but lately I've joined a stealthier group I'll call the "spy moms." In kid-focused Palo Alto, there are quite a few of us.

We are the moms who quietly pull our minivans to the curb outside the summer camp play area so we can see who our kids are playing with -- or if they're all alone, kicking sand.

We're the moms who get ourselves onto school committees, classroom volunteer lists and sign up for crossing guard duty so that in the midst of helping your child we can nonchalantly check out ours.

We grew up in co-op preschools, neighborhood playgroups, La Leche leagues and Mommy and Me classes -- where attaching to our child became not just a rite of passage but a tough habit to kick.

And even if we have a typical Palo Alto house with a small yard and no room for a Ping Pong table we wonder how our house can become the "party" house, letting us place an imaginary property line around our children's burgeoning social lives.

I know, get a life.

But you really can't blame mothers for their need to see. We raise our babies at such peril that we are trained to watch their every move. Have they drowned? Are they head-planting off a table, getting into the knives, eating an oleander leaf?

It takes a long, very long time to lose the extra four eyes that automatically bulge out from our head the moment we give birth.

From years of play dates and birthday parties we've honed our skills at filling snack bowls while keeping our eye on the prize. And thanks to other spy moms and tattletale siblings, we tell ourselves that our information network operates like a virtual live cam.

A fellow-spy friend of mine wonders when one of our biotech companies will devise a chip we can install into our children when they're born. Ideally the tracking device comes complete with color readings like a mood rock so we can know not just their location, but what kind of personality we'll face when they walk in the door.

The last place kids reveal anything is over family dinner, even if the ritualistic meal is supposed to boost their SAT scores. A recent conversation at our table:

Mother: "How was camp?"

Son: "I need my milk."

Mother: "You can get your own milk. How was camp?"

Son: "What's this white stuff on my pasta?"

Toddler: "My milk!" (Banging sippy cup of milk.)

Mother: "That's Parmesan. What are the counselors like?"

Son: "Bossy. I wanted plain pasta."

Toddler: "Fork!" (Hurling fork through the air.)

Son: "That was my fork!"

Mother, retrieving fork for son: "Why are the counselors bossy?"

Toddler, now crying: "Hold me!"

Son: "She always takes my fork!"

Mother, picking up toddler: "Which counselor is bossy?"

Father (joining table with smile): "Who's the boss?"

Son: "This pasta is horrible."

Left solely to the art of conversation, we spies would know so little. So we peek and prod, slink and stare in our eternal quest to know.

And of course we know almost nothing, which is the most humbling part of parenting. Even worse, our kids are spying on us, too!

They are constantly watching our behavior, listening to what we say, role modeling themselves after the best and worst we have to offer.

I well remember the day our son uttered his first cuss word, used in context, at the ripe age of 2. After my husband and I finished blaming each other, we were left to stare in horror at this pint-sized mirror of ourselves.

Perhaps some of the stress our kids feel living in high-achieving Palo Alto comes from a sense that their parents are always watching them, our eyes asking: Are you good enough? Happy enough? Living up to my expectations?

Surely our children don't ask so much of us. In fact, even as they role model us, our kids so often forgive us, overlooking our competitive natures, neurosis and other parental insecurities. Don't we owe them the same?

So the next time you see one of us spy moms parked in our minivan next to a play structure, please don't pity our codependence. Deep inside we know how little we can see, but that won't stop us from trying.

It's our children who are the real watchers, looking to us, their oh-so-fallible parents, for a road map to their destinies.

Lucy Rector Filppu has lived in Palo Alto for six years and works part time as special projects editor for, a children's Web site. She and her husband, Len, have two young children. She can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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