Who Am I? And When Will I Know?

Peach came to me with a delighted look on her face after receiving a compliment from a friend who told her, “I wish I had your life.  You’re so cool.”  This surprised Peach who, of course, spends time thinking the same thoughts about others. 

She repeated the words several times, testing my reaction, seeking validation and convincing herself that it could be true.  ‘Cool’ isn’t a concept she’d tried on before.  Did it fit?  Could she pull it off?  We are what we believe we are, but how do we know what to believe?

I wish I could say it’s only tweens and teens who absorb the opinions of others in order to define themselves.  But too many times as an adult I’ve caught myself feeling good or bad based on another person’s criticism or compliment.

In my book, Tween You and Me:  A Preteen Guide To Becoming Your Best Self, I advocate for girls to know themselves, be themselves, and love themselves.  What I don’t highlight is how challenging the first step is.

Figuring out who we are is lifelong work.  We’re like a slow-cooked meal that needs extended time to simmer before emerging from the pot in the form of palatable dish.  Becoming a mature person who understands herself takes patience and practice.  It requires us to spend time on the inside, releasing the flavor of us, bit by bit.

A sage will advise you to ‘Listen to your heart’ or your gut, or some such organ, to guide you through life.  But if we haven’t established a relationship with our innards, this advice is useless.  We’re likely to choose the more convenient but tenuous path of adopting the world’s idea of who we should be.  Seeing ourselves in the mirror of the world can be helpful, but the world can only show us how we are.  It can’t define who we are.

Certain Native American tribes had naming ceremonies, sometimes beginning at birth.  The name reflected a virtue the parents hoped for the baby to have.  This would be replaced in adolescence in response to a strength for which the child was known.  As an adult, another name might be granted to reflect an expectation for the person to live up to.  The process of identification was fluid.

The goal in getting to know yourself isn’t to land on one comprehensive definition.  The goal is to become skilled enough at turning inward that you can see, understand, and act in accordance with your true vision and values as they apply to any given moment. 

As parents, we want this for our children.  We want to know that they’re armored with self-confidence and immune to the judgmental world.  We want for them what we still don’t possess for ourselves 100% of the time.  The best we can do is meet them where they’re at, not trying to change anything, and not expecting adult-level responses to the feedback that hammers them every day from all directions.

I offered Peach an observation of my own.  “I see a girl who is growing and learning every day.  I see a girl who is a good friend and loves her family.  I see a girl who wonders about things with an imaginative mind and works tirelessly at creating.  This girl has ideas worth sharing and a future that’s bright. And I think that makes you pretty cool.”

Peach smiled at this and said, “Thanks.  I think I can see that too.”

Growing Pains

Friend is facing her first experience of launching a child off to college and is beginning to do the mother-bird scramble.

“Should I be doing something?”  she asked with a slight hint of panic.  “Did I forget to give my son some sort of key family experience?  Will he grow up and say ‘you never did this with me….’?”

I laughed out loud because this is what friends do when they’re smug about already having moved through a parenting stage that a girlfriend is struggling with.

“It’s simple,” I told her.  “No, you shouldn’t be trying to make up for missed opportunities.  Because yes, your son will tell you that you short-changed him in childhood – no matter what hoops you’ve jumped through to make his life spectacular.”

Knowing this doesn’t stop us parents from trying to over-provide as we send our babies out into the world.  For yours truly, sending my second child off to college this year, my un-nesting ritual included a trip to the pharmacy to prepare an insanely sophisticated First Aid kit, the likes of which could patch up a wounded soldier on the front lines of war; one who also suffers from cold, flu, sunburn, allergies and bug bites.

Let’s face it, this milestone is big-huge for parents, not just kids.  We want to make sure that we’ve checked all the boxes.

When our babies were small, we had growth charts that told us if they were getting what they needed.  Then we had academic progress reports to inform us.  What nebulous system, besides coming of age, do we use to reassure us that they’re adequately prepared to be solo in the big wide world?

We know, deep down, that all will be well.  But we may also secretly fear that our child will crash and burn.  And worse, that it will be our fault – a result of some failing on our part.

This is a rabbit hole that my mind has fallen into more than once.  Like earlier this summer when I determined that 14 year old Peach didn’t have enough structured activity to keep her from melting in to a lazy pile of teenaged decay.  In short, I panicked and began arranging to-do lists for her to complete.  I lectured her about the balance between work and play, giving and receiving.  And I admonished her for her resistance to my lessons.

“The only time you’re growing is when you’re uncomfortable.” I told her, stealing wisdom from a blog I had read that day.

“Uncomfortable?!” she repeated.  Check.  Double check.  We were both miserable thanks to my reactionary measures.

So goes the learning process.  I’m still growing too.

Friend and I poked fun at ourselves, which always serves to lessen the growing pains.  We decided that our misguided fears about parenting are borne of the immense love we have for our children. 

Love and fear are catastrophically intertwined.  It is these two reasons, only these two, that drive all of our actions.

I give to my child because I love him AND I fear that he will suffer without my support.

I withhold from my child because I love him and I fear that he will be spoilt.

Same. Same.

I tried to explain this to Peach by way of an apology.  “If I get crazy, you’re allowed to ask me what I’m afraid of.” 

Peach might just be brave enough to confront me with my own fear.  If she does, I promised to be okay with the discomfort, because I’m told that if one masters discomfort, one can master anything.

There’s plenty of discomfort on my doorstep as a parent of three, and letting go has been challenging.  But I think, overall, I’m doing pretty well with it.

Distance Parenting and Curve Balls

parenting worryWaking to a text from my college Freshman declaring “I’m scared,” was enough to give me a mini heart attack. Her physical safety had been inadvertently threatened by the thoughtless act of a misguided roommate. A week’s worth of distance-parenting ensued as my daughter found herself involved in an intense process that resulted in removal of said roommate.

Supporting Principessa from afar was a frustrating experience. I wanted desperately to rescue her, coddle her, speak for her… As mothers do, I wanted to kiss the boo-boo and make it better. Not unfortunately, the miles between us prevented any such nonsense, which gave Principessa the opportunity to rise up and shine through adversity.

Principessa had the wherewithal to handle herself with maturity and sensibility. Witnessing her instant evolution from child to young adult was gratifying to say the least. I felt as if I had arrived in a place I had dreamt about for years. It was a place that validated my (and Husband’s) work as parents.

Husband and I shook our heads in disbelief at the insanity of it all. As parents, we send a child off with hopes that we’ve prepared them for life. But we can never prepare for every conceivable situation. We can only hope that the skills they learned will serve them when life throws a curve ball.

When all was said and done, I felt relieved, of course, but also a bit damaged – strung out from sleepless nights of worry and days filled with phone calls. A week’s worth of uncertainty had taken its toll.

Friend asked why I hadn’t ‘freaked out’ about this violation to my first-born. I could thank yoga, meditation, prayer, denial, level-headedness, or any number of tools in my toolbox. I’m not really sure what held me together, but there was the underlying belief that Clarity works better than Chaos. I can’t allow Chaos to run the show, especially when my kid’s safety is on the line. Besides, I’d like to save ‘Freaked Out’ for an unidentified special occasion – one that can’t be solved with sanity. One that hopefully will never arrive.

Launching A Child

Woman-saying-goodbye-FarewellMy sister-in-law questioned my sincerity when I texted that I was having fun moving my eldest daughter into college for the first time. All bets were on me coming apart at the seams.

I had given ample indication of emotional fragility in preparation for this momentous occasion. In the weeks following high school graduation, a song on the radio, a memory jogged while driving past a playground…anything, or nothing, could turn me to mush instantaneously. The world conspired against me, it seemed. How else to explain the untimely (or timely) arrival of an email from a photo-sharing site titled, ‘Your life 7 years ago’ which showed images of my college Freshman in elementary school. Cruelty, I say.

The fact that college move-in day landed on my birthday heightened my self-pity. ‘Worst birthday present ever,’ I grumbled. But my conscience was having none of it. Just days before, I was informed of a local high school graduate who had died in an accident. His mother, I realized, wouldn’t be able to transition her son to the next phase of life. In solidarity with this mother, I vowed to enjoy the privilege before me.

Kahlil Gibran says that children never belong to us. They only come through us. I’ve had to remind myself of this countless times in my parenting history. The urge to hold onto the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me is, at times, intense. But as the wise Dory says in Finding Nemo, “If you don’t let anything happen to ‘em, nothing will ever happen. No fun for Nemo.”

I have sent away a girl of eighteen years who, in my heart, might as well be four again; for the way I felt in separating from her was no less shocking. Dear ones have been asking how I’m doing. Impossible to answer. I’m ‘doing’ every emotion known to humanity, and have yet to land on a description that encapsulates the sensation of launching a beloved child.

My heart reaches out to every parent I crossed paths with on campus – the mother struggling to hold herself together, the parents at the pub drowning their stress, and the fathers – more than one – who were victimized by a phenomenon that Husband dubbed, ‘Dad-Shaming.’ Students, succumbing to the frenzy of the occasion, would periodically scream at their well-meaning fathers in public. “Dad! I know that! Let me do it! Leave me alone!!!!!”

In the next several years, these college students will morph into young adults. When they return, we will have to get acquainted with them all over again, leaving space for the child-cum-stranger whose tastes and manners may be grossly unfamiliar.

Meanwhile, we will be learning a new parenting style, conducted from afar and constructed on a whole new set of rules. We will love from a distance, always hoping, but never quite knowing, if it will be enough. We will worry and encourage and pray our way through it. And at the end of the college experience, we will wonder, as we do now, how did it go so fast?

On Children

 

Letter to University from Mom

collegeBoundDear University,

You are about to receive a gift. We call her Principessa and she is my daughter. To you, she is just a statistic – one set of criteria that met with approval for acceptance into your esteemed institution.

Principessa will be leaving all that she knows to join you several hundred miles from home. She will be on her own for the first time. I don’t expect you to parent her or to take over for me in my absence. But I do expect you to provide her with what she needs to survive and to thrive over the next several years.

I hope you fulfill the promises you made when you wooed her into your fold – a solid education that will lead to job prospects, a safe environment, and ample diversity and opportunities to stimulate her personal growth.

This seems like the least I can ask for my financial investment. Which, by the way, is significantly higher than many of her fellow classmates. For instance, the athlete with the coveted ‘full boat.’ Apparently his physical skills are more highly valued than my daughter’s passion and talent for nurturing children and her long-standing desire to become a teacher.

My husband and I will pay an inflated sticker price for the reward of our daughter’s college education. To say that I’m not bitter or worried about the ability to afford this would be a lie. But I’m willing to bury my negativity in exchange for her ultimate success and happiness.

University, you have no idea how special my daughter is to me. And I get the feeling that you probably don’t care – except for caring that she reflects well on your reputation. Don’t worry, she’ll do you proud, just as she has done for us all these years.

Principessa is one in 17,000 to you, but she is one of a kind to us, her family. Please be good to her. She deserves the best you have to offer.

Sincerely,

Mom of the college Freshman

The New You

brand-new-you1

image credit purefunfit.com

Dearest Daughter,

I love that you so clearly wrote your feelings in response to my spontaneous comment about not liking the New You.  I am equally unhappy that your email was written at 1:00 a.m.!  Why? Because that is very late and I worry, as mothers do.

I try hard not to share my worries because I want to project confidence for you.  Deep down, I believe that you’ll be fine, even when you make poor choices or even good choices that I don’t like.  I believe in fate and God and the goodness of Life.  But my human-ness and my mom-ness continue to plague me with what-if scenarios.

When you were a clumsy toddler, I watched with fear as you climbed a playground structure.  My hands were never far from your body, waiting – expecting – to have to catch you.  My mothering instinct is to protect.  Over the years, I’ve learned to subdue the urge to rescue you, even when you begged me.  Case in point: making you call the orthodontist to let him know that, again, you need to replace your retainer.  And that you will be paying for it.

While punishing me as a child, my mother told me, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”  I didn’t believe her.  I do now.  It hurts me to see you struggle, even when I know it will result in your favor.

As the first-born you bear the task of paving roads.  All along the way, my parental inexperience has been your guide.  You are my first child to leave the nest and I am learning how to reconcile my heartbreak with my pride.  Both emotions are strong and are battling for victory.

Last night, you captured a heartfelt but selfish comment from me.  When I said that I don’t like the new you, I misspoke.  I love all versions of you.  What I dislike is the feeling that my world is changing so drastically and so quickly.  You are living life your way, not my way, as it should be.  I envision myself grasping for the rope that tethers your boat to the dock.  But your ship is ready to sail.

You are branching out toward unfamiliar experiences, taking advantage of the bounty of youth, and it’s difficult for me to watch.  But my skepticism is not an indication of the rightness or wrongness of your choices.  As you pointed out in defense, you are consciously taking risks and risks are essential to growth.

Principessa, I trust in your core values.  I believe your intentions are pure.  You don’t disappoint me.  And I could never think less of you.

Thank you for pointing out that it’s also hard for you to see yourself changing.  We know that change is essential and beneficial but it’s often scary.  Now that we’ve exposed our mutual fear and shined a light on it, it looks less daunting.  Let’s agree that we won’t let fear get the best of us.

You worry that you’ll become someone you don’t recognize.  It’s true that you’ll stray from the person you’ve been, but you can’t lose yourself.  There is a part in each of us that is connected to our source. It cannot be severed. You are, and always will be, uniquely you by divine design.

If you forget who you are, how special and precious, just ask me.  I will pour my love into your heart and remind you of your value. As always, I will be here, with arms outstretched, ready to catch you if you fall.

Loving you more than you can imagine,

Mom

dr seuss you

Mother’s Day-cation

I am alone at the lake on Mother’s Day weekend. It’s supposed to feel good to be away, rejuvenating. And it does – sort of. I’ve escaped the mayhem of a spring weekend full of sports events, social obligations and chores. Who could complain?

Peach felt personally wounded that her mother would want to be away from her on Mother’s Day. I assured her that I did want to be with her – for the part when I come home to a clean house and a cooked dinner. But that it was also important for me to remove myself from motherhood for a moment so I could get a good look at it.

So here I sit, at a house that once upon a time, bubbled with the activity of a young family. Little voices squealed at the break of dawn, begging to go swimming. Bigger voices chased them around, lit campfires, and made nature bracelets to pass the time. They would roast smores together and give sticky hugs and kisses. They would kayak and count stars, play cards and hike mountains.

Those days are gone. My babies are growing up and our time as a family is coming to an end. It sounds melodramatic but it’s true. Five in one room is a thing of the past. I’m trying to pretend I’m not sad; trying to avoid that cliche about it going so fast. But hot damn, it flew by and I’m gutted that it’s almost over.

I know I won’t stop being a mother when the kids leave the house. And yes, I’m grateful that they’re reaching their expected milestones. So I try my hardest to avoid silly tears. But when I stumble upon a forgotten baby monitor while Spring cleaning our lonely vacation house, I bust open. I couldn’t bring myself to move the toys that I found under the bed. I remember buying them for my 2 year old.

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When I was a stay-at-home mother, I made a promise to myself to maintain an identity. I feared the thought of becoming one of ‘those’ mothers whose lives were so entwined in their children’s lives that they fell apart when they were no longer needed. Unachieved goal, that one. No matter how much I’ve accomplished outside of mothering, nothing matters more to me than loving and caring for my little people.

Sometimes, I actually wish I didn’t love them so much. Because it hurts to let go. This is the dichotomy I’m stuck in.

Celebrating the milestones while mourning the foregone moments.
Dreading the work yet embracing the job.
Wanting my children close to me but craving peace and quiet.

It’s tearing me apart, this motherhood thing. And yet, it’s the very thing that makes me whole.
I can’t know if I’ve made the most of mothering. But mothering has definitely made the most of me.

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