By Dana Dougherty Reinke
Picture it. It’s the day before you’re headed to Italy to both work and vacation with your family. Your bags are packed, your spouse is already there and you’re frantically running around Urban Outfitters, trying to get your two teenage sons to stop messing around long enough to buy some jeans for the trip. Suddenly the phone rings. It’s Oprah and she wants you to be on her show next week! The woman behind the desk turns down the music, the moms around you are whispering “Oh my God! It’s Oprah!” and all the while your sons keep throwing punches at each other – because that’s what boys do.
Travis immediately called her publisher who told her to drop everything; she called the TV station and they said, “Absolutely! Go, pretend you don’t have children!” And just as the impossible seemed possible, reality showed up courtesy of Debbie’s husband. After making a quick call to him in Italy (he was already there filming for her show, The Debbie Travis Tuscany Girls’ Getaway), Debbie had her bubble burst. “Listen, I’m here and I’ve already started work!” he said. “Get on the plane – if the Americans want you, they’ll want you next week!” And so Travis did what she had to do. She said no, because her family had to come first. Did she like it? Of course not. Did she glare at her kids in the rearview mirror as they threw punches at each other in the backseat and think “if only I didn’t have kids, if only I was single again…”? Absolutely. She also felt incredibly guilty about it. But then, she is a mom.
In many ways, Travis’ family life is pretty glamorous – I mean, Italy? Oprah? Come on! But while her career as a Canadian television star and lifestyle guru has allowed her sons Josh, 25, and Max, 24, to travel the world with their parents, look past all that and you’ll find a pretty average mom with a very pragmatic parenting style that could even be described as old school. While her sons were young she did what most working moms do – tried as much as she could to be there for her boys, including moving her design office two blocks from home.
When her sons were teenagers, Travis and her husband, Hans, lived across the street from their school and strove to make home a place where their kids felt comfortable hanging out. The couple would banish themselves to their bedroom while the boys partied downstairs, even going so far as to buy a case of beer for them to share with their friends (and letting the other parents know), in an effort to balance being there for their sons with allowing them freedom to make mistakes.
That’s not to say her sons had it easy. Travis describes herself as being quite strict. “We were always on the teacher’s side, not on theirs,” she says. “Boys can be idiots! So if they were banned from a school trip because they did something wrong, then they didn’t go. We never smoothed that kind of thing over.”
She also makes no apologies for taking charge when she had to. As the mother of two teenage boys, she was the organizer, the disciplinarian, the main parent much of the time and yes, occasionally (especially when enforcing curfews) the ‘worst mother in the world.’ In her own words, “I am a screamer, threatener, destroyer of any fun times,” says Travis. “I am the mom.”
A new chapter
One of the TV star’s most vivid mom memories is of standing at the bottom of her stairs counting to three while yelling at her then-18-year-old son, Max, to go to his room. The battle waged on until Travis used the most powerful weapon in her arsenal — the look. (You know the one). It was enough to make Max jump from the dinner table and run upstairs — but not before the towering six-foot-tall teen smirked and patted her head on his way up. Travis says she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, though crying eventually won out. “All those years of ‘take your elbows off the table!’ and correcting eventually sunk in. I felt like I’d done something right, but at the same time I felt sad because I knew a chapter was closing.”
It’s these kind of frank admissions – that she too has danced that fine line between cracking up laughing and just plain cracking up – that make Travis so relatable and such a refreshing resource to parents of teenaged children. Her book Not Guilty: My Guide to Working Hard, Raising Kids and Laughing Through the Chaos (Vintage Canada, 2008) isn’t definitive parenting doctrine — it’s just the story of how one woman got through the inevitable tough times while she savoured all the lovely moments too.
Her recommendation for weathering the storms? A good sense of humour and a stubborn streak that will help you match them every step of the way. “Treat them like the enemy. Strategize and be cleverer than they are, and never take your eyes off the ball!”
“I come from the first real generation of career women, and it is not easy juggling your job with all that a family needs,” she says. Several years ago Travis did a speaking engagement in Winnipeg about her everyday life. At one point a woman in the audience stood up and asked how Travis could juggle her work and children and still have the energy to get up every day. Then she, and most of the other women in the room, started to cry.
Watching her audience cry out of the frustration that comes with trying to have it all eventually caused Travis to hang up her paintbrush for a while and write Not Guilty. In it, she shares her tips on raising a family and having a successful career, which includes fostering a strong network of friends who you can sit down with at the end of the day and vent. Another key to surviving the teen years? Giving yourself permission to have a meltdown every now and then.
Travis insists that one of the main reasons she has an extremely close relationship with her sons is due to the lack of technology when her boys were small. “If it was dinner time, there was no cellphone sitting on my lap. There probably would have been if I would have had it then, but because I didn’t I was talking to my kids.” She also emphasizes the importance of sharing your day with children – especially young ones – so they understand why and how you deal with daily situations. “As a working mother it is about the quality of the time you spend with them,” she says. “Be with them 100 per cent when you are all together.”
Learning from experience
Unlike many parenting experts out there, Travis draws on her own experience to back up her message, and she’s not afraid to admit her mistakes. If she could, Travis says, she’d head back in time to when Josh and Max were teens and offer herself some sage advice. “Stop screaming and stop feeling guilty. There is no point – your kids will be who they are going to be. Just love them.”
In her book, Travis’ own sons insisted on going on record about what a great mom she is, writing “…You prepared us for the world by making us learn from our mistakes and giving endless hugs. You made us who we are. A good parent is not defined by their perfection but rather their imperfection. So Mum, never feel guilty for not always getting it right and often losing it. We love you anyway. — Your naughty boys Josh and Max”.
While it’s very likely that Travis would be the first to admit she isn’t a perfect parent, the fact that her sons acknowledge her bang-up job is incredibly telling. It also offers a ray of hope to parents in the thick of raising teenagers and young adults. And isn’t that what we’re all hoping for, anyway?
Travis’ 5 Rules for Raising Teens
1. Treat them like the enemy. Recognize that this is your child and not your friend, because he’ll use you in every possible way to get what he wants. Try to be one step ahead at all times. “Be smarter than they are,” she says. “We were teens once; the tricks they play are pretty much the same.”
2. Rules are rules. If you tell him he has to be home by 11 p.m., then you have to mean it and be willing to follow through with the consequences if he’s not, Travis says.
3. Humiliate when necessary. If you see your teenager smoking in a park, don’t let it go. Do what Travis would do and march over to him in your pyjamas and demand he stop. Sometimes mortifying him is all it takes to nip a filthy habit in the bud.
4. Get tough with homework. Homework is the bane of many a parent’s existence, but if your child doesn’t want to do it and you give in, she’s the one who ultimately pays the price by failing the exam. Travis recommends setting an alarm and saying, “Ok, you have two hours. Knuckle down.”
5. Establish some downtime. Put away the cellphones, make the table a laptop-free zone, or do whatever it takes to just sit and talk to your kids. If you can’t have dinner together, go for a walk once a week or play a board game. Sounds cheesy but it works.