Featured on Grown and Flown – Teen Friendships

I am once again delighted to contribute an essay to Grown & Flown, a wonderful website and blog about parenting teens and young adults. My current piece is about helping teens to navigate friendships.

If you’re interested, please find the piece here.

Thanks! Deb

Letter to My Elderly Father

Dear Dad,

Remember when I crashed the car and you didn’t get angry?  After you made sure that I wasn’t hurt, you laughed because the car was bent into a funny shape.  “Cars are replaceable. People aren’t,” you told me, and I instantly learned a lesson about values.

That single incident shaped me more than you know.  It shaped your grandchildren too because I adopted your parenting mantra:  ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk.’

We quote you a lot, you know.  Just the other day, when I was filling your medicine dispenser with the visiting nurse, I shared the sage advice that punctuated every task of my life, “Measure twice, cut once.”  You had an expectation of perfection and attention to detail that served you well.

Your standards perpetuate through those who have had the benefit of learning from you.  I don’t have the skills you had for building and fixing absolutely everything, but I try because you raised me to be capable and I still want to make you proud.

I suppose you were preparing me for the time when your own body declined to the point that you could no longer help me.   You wanted to make sure that I could care for myself. Now I’m caring for you. I don’t blame you for resisting my help. To do otherwise would be an admission of defeat or loss, and that isn’t your style.

It hurts you, I know, to sit out of life and let others do the work you used to do.  You want to feel useful and be productive. You want to contribute in the ways you did best.  But the body has its own plan and yours is begging for mercy.

Somewhere deep down you know that you’re losing your battle with age and illness, but you’ll fight until the curtain closes and never concede to the wishes of those who love and serve you.  I admire that tenacity (aka stubbornness) and recognize a bit of it in all your kin. It’s a signature of your culture and, perhaps, a result of your personal history.

Soon enough we’ll have to say goodbye.  No matter how much I prepare for it, it will destroy me, at least for a while.  How can it not? You were this girl’s hero.

I’ll try to be brave, Dad, like you taught me. “Show ’em what you’ve got,” you’d say, which always made me straighten up a little taller and believe in myself, because you believed in me.

I would claim to loathe the practice of sugar-coating life – of pretending, once someone is gone, that it was all sunshine and butterflies.  But now that we’re nearing the end of our time together, I’m hard-pressed to care about the ugly parts. Somehow, the struggles seem to enhance the story, and I wouldn’t want to cut out one bit.

It’s okay to be afraid, Dad.  I want to give you comfort and reassurance that all will be well.  To let you know the ways in which you are unforgettable; how much your life has meant and will continue to mean.

Every time I see a fish tank, I recall a sweet memory of you pacing back and forth in front of it to calm sleepless babies.  When I hear someone whistling, l remember how you always whistled while you worked and it makes me smile because no one whistles when they’re angry.  And when I see someone in need, I ask myself how I can help, because that’s what you would do.

As a parent, I question if I’ve done enough for my kids.  In case you wonder that too, Dad, put your mind at ease. You gave me everything you had to give, and it was more than enough.

Your life was modest but your legacy is immeasurable.  The inheritance you left us consists of intangible wealth – a toolbox of resources to build a solid house atop the foundation you set.

Thank you, Dad, for being part of my life.   I love you, and I always will.

Deb

A Letter To My College Graduate

Dear daughter,

Sometimes I gaze at you – a beautiful, kind, mature young woman on the doorstep of adulthood – and I wonder what I did to deserve you.  I recall the work of child-rearing sharply enough – the disciplining, advising, nurturing and consoling.  But how it amounted to the miracle of you is a mystery. 

You exceed any dream I could possibly have had.  When you were born I tried to imagine who and what you would become, how I would support you, how I would fail you, and why life chose to put us together. But none of my predictions came close to describing all that unfolded.

I find myself wanting to reflect on our years together the way one wants to re-read a favorite story over and over.  Even the strenuous parts capture my attention in a way that they didn’t the first time around because I know where the story is headed and how crucial every morsel is to the overall theme.

I see how the world is better because of you.  I see how the future needs you.  And I see that despite my efforts to show you, you don’t fully realize how valuable you are. 

Graduation is an opportunity to indulge my desire to love you out loud.  In concert with mothers everywhere, I proclaim my pride along with my gratitude for having had the privilege of raising a child.

Life must be smiling at itself for the job it’s done in creating you, us, all of it.  Especially the love that perpetuates between us, filling the world with wonder.

As you make your way into the next chapter, far from my reach, know that there is nowhere you can go that my love can’t follow.  I will be right here, holding a space in my heart that was carved out just for you.

Try not to begrudge the loss of the familiarity that you hold so dear.  Keep moving forward in the way that you do, with a zest to experience everything, knowing that nothing is meant to last forever.

All that life wants from you is to say ‘yes’ to that which draws you out and brings you joy.  May you find what you desire, and be alert to the surprises that await you.

Love,

Mom

If You Love Something, Let It Go

They say that if you love something you must let it go.  If it loves you in return, it will come back to you.  I didn’t realize that I was counting on this when I sent my daughter off to college 4 years ago.

In theory, I had launched her into the world and was glad of it.  But I failed to see the strand of hope that tethered me to her like the string on a kite soaring out of reach. 

When my daughter announced that upon graduation she would travel 8000 miles away to teach in a third world country, the tension on the line that connects us tightened, begging me to release my remaining grip.

I indulged in sadness just once, crying briefly, then it was done.  I had never been so forlorn about something that I endorse 100%.  But history has taught me that my fears are poor predictors of reality, and that time spent on worry is always wasted.

It seems like yesterday that I left a teen daughter trembling at the entrance to Girls’ Leadership camp – a place she hesitantly agreed to attend for the summer preceding High School.  My homespun girl needed to build courage and independence in adolescence.  It was my job to help her find it, not to wait for a time when she felt ready.

As maturity set in for her, I ceased having to push her off the platform of certainty. Our roles reversed and it was I who felt reluctant about my daughter’s ever-expanding adventures.  Like tearing apart velcro, I could feel the ripping each time she ventured farther into the big wide world. The beauty of velcro is that it can be joined and separated over and over and remain just as strong.

In time, I realized that I wasn’t losing a child to the world.  Rather, I’d gained a scout through whom I would experience places and people I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I would see life through my daughter’s eyes and share in her world no matter the miles between us.

I used to believe the adage that parents give their children wings to fly.  In truth, children are born with wings and the instinct to use them.  Flying isn’t taught but allowed.  We can give nothing more than freedom.

When the fear of flight rises, it may take all the determination one can muster to release the restraints that bind us, and our loved ones, to the ground.  It’s not until we truly let go that we can enjoy the reward in soaring.

Parenting is a noble prospect, rife with opportunity for personal growth.  As we raise a child, we raise ourselves.  Our mission, if we accept it, prompts us to evolve into far greater beings than we ever imagined, or wanted to be.

Unconditional love insists that we surrender our parental fears in order to fulfill a commitment to those who follow our lead.  When we cooperate, we find that life has a way of unfolding in the most natural and perfect way. 

Despite inherent uncertainty, there is peace waiting for us.  We have only to release our grip on what we think we know in order to see life smiling at us and saying, “Trust me.  I’ve got this.”

When Your Boy Becomes A Man

Beagle called Husband with an announcement.  “I’m my own man now.”

Without missing a beat, Husband replied, “Oh, good.  I’ll send you the man-bills.”

Husband was referring to the hefty expenses that he and I shoulder for college attendance, an off-campus apartment, and a vehicle.

Beagle clarified that he qualified for man status because he acquired a dog. 

For countless reasons that don’t need to be spelled out for the mature reader, I was horrified.

When Husband and I recovered from our shock, we breathed a sigh of relief that Beagle is practicing fatherhood on a canine instead of a human baby.  Let’s be realistic, the news could have been entirely less welcome and the outcome, more life-altering.

I could have seen this coming.  Beagle had threatened to take the family dog with him to college and he insisted on caring for her when we travelled. He loves dogs and is adequately versed on basic pet care.  For what it’s worth, he has kept his fish alive for 10 years. (A fish that remains in my house due to its need for an unreasonably-sized tank.)  But a dog of one’s own at college is a different beast altogether.

These are the occurrences that give a parent the chance to make good on vows to support a child.  It’s easy to promise lifelong unconditional love when gazing at an innocent newborn who hasn’t crossed any lines.  But can we show up for our kid when circumstances and choices challenge us?

I don’t love my child only when he makes super-smart decisions.  And I don’t intend to bet against him.  But I will draw boundary lines and muster up the conviction to stand by them.  This is Beagle’s dog, not mine.  He will make his mistakes, discover his limitations, and hopefully experience the joy and satisfaction that comes from caring for another.   I’ll be at a distance, cheering him on, and watching as my boy unfolds into a man.

Why I Raised My Kids To Be Mediocre

When my son was in elementary school he was invited to join the Math team.  Invitations into this circle were reserved for those who excelled in the subject.  Assuming that anyone on whom such an honor was bestowed would be thrilled, I enthusiastically congratulated him.

“I’m not doing it,” he told me in a tone of utmost finality.

“Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you enjoy it,” he explained.

What followed on the heels of the recognition of my son’s academic prowess was unexpectedly negative.  He had been outed as smart – a label that repelled him.  He would spend the next several years trying to undo it.

It wasn’t the ‘smart’ part that my son minded.  He just didn’t want the responsibility that came with it.  Grown-ups expect a lot from little achievers.  Once a child proves that he can rise to the top, the pressure to remain there is immense.

I know this because I, too, was labeled a ‘smart one.’ Rare was the occasion that my academic report card didn’t prove my potential for a great future. It was thrilling to my second-generation blue-collar parents to brag about my achievements and the future they dreamed for me.  “She’s going to be a doctor,” my father would tell people, without ever asking me what I wanted for a career.

I decided that I didn’t want my own children to become puppets who performed for their parents, teachers or coaches.  Nor did I want them to depend on recognition.  Which is why I raised them to be mediocre.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to excel or work to their full potential.  Rather, I wanted them to know that it’s okay to be just okay; and that they can have a full and successful life even if they never become ‘the best’ at anything.

If I had encouraged my children to stay up late studying, worry themselves silly, and pile their efforts on top of their talents, they may have won more recognition from admirers.  But none held the promise of happiness, or a good career, or even a college acceptance. 

What happens when we give children opportunities for relaxation and playtime no matter the amount of homework?  They learn to balance their time, get their work done, and still leave space for the things that sustain their souls – a practice many adults have abandoned to their detriment.

What happens when we forbid them from comparing themselves to their peers or siblings, and we teach ourselves to do the same? They learn to encourage others, instead of envy them, thereby preserving faith in themselves.

When children are groomed to detach love from performance, and they have no fear of judgment from the adults they look up to, they’re excited to try new things, even if they don’t excel at them.  They’re unafraid of failure and more apt to take positive risks.  And they make better choices for themselves – ones that will lead to fulfillment of their unique purpose in life.

My college Junior texted me an observation.  “I’m so relieved that you don’t bug me about grades or my schedule or things that are going on because you trust me.  I have friends whose parents harass them on a daily basis.”

As parents, we sometimes fear that if our children don’t adhere to our metrics for success, they’ll fail at life.  We think that they can’t or won’t survive without our interference, and we condition them to believe the same. Secretly, we also may worry that they’ll embarrass or disappoint us because we believe that the way our kids’ lives look reflect on our own success as a parent.

So we formulate plans for them as if it’s a roadmap with an indisputable delineation of paths.  Do this and you’ll arrive at success.  Do that and you’ll be a worthless bum who can’t support yourself and will end up living under my roof until I die.

The truth is that when children are intrinsically motivated, instead of by the promise of glory, or the threat of a dissatisfied adult, they’re more able to sort out the pieces of their own puzzle and not be tempted to throw it in the trash. 

If children learn how to slice up the pie chart of life in a way that sustains them for the long haul, but not necessarily in a way that impresses others, they’re more likely to enjoy the journey and less likely to resent it.  When no one asks them to take on the impossible task of being the best, children end up being self-reliant, successful, and anything but mediocre.

When People Behave Badly

The television show titled What Would You Do? makes me squirm.  I used to think it was because I hate confrontation.  But if I’m being honest, the real reason I can’t watch the show is because my answer to the question, ‘What would you do?’ would often be ‘nothing’ and I struggle with that.

It’s not that I don’t want to help people.  I care very deeply about giving hope to those in despair.  But in moments of unexpected crisis, I inevitably freeze, unable to make a transformative move that would right a wrong.

Thus it happened, as I waited in line for a public bathroom, that a frazzled mother and her old-enough daughter scurried up beside me.  Mom was squirming and wore an expression of disbelief.  Her sweet daughter stood motionless just behind mom’s leg as if trying to disappear.

“She wet herself!” the mother exclaimed without a morsel of decorum.

“Oh, I see…you can go in front of me,” I said as if that wasn’t a foregone assumption. 

In the immediate moments following the shameless reveal of the poor girl’s mortification, voices inside me screamed so loudly that I couldn’t be sure which one I should listen to.

One voice wanted me to chastise the mother for her selfish insensitivity.  Another wanted me to scoop the girl into my arms and infuse her with such depths of love that the pain of this misfortune would be unable to attach itself to her self-worth.

My jaw opened and closed but nothing came out.  Nothing.  I was bereft of the words of comfort I desperately wanted to give.  So I kept glancing at the girl, directly into her eyes, trying to will her to absorb my compassion via energetic osmosis, I guess.

But the girl continued to look at the ground hoping, I’m sure, that it would swallow her up.

Then, as if to clarify the obvious, the mom tugged the girl’s hand abruptly and said, “Do you have any idea how embarrassing this is?!”

A pained squeak escaped my throat in concert with the girl’s tiny vulnerable voice that pleaded softly, “But mama……”

I swear I witnessed the girl’s heart leave her body along with any final threads of self-respect.  She had been stripped of dignity and stood raw and vulnerable at the mercy of mom.

In situations such as these, when parents behave badly, I feel I have no authority to be self-righteous.  I too have reacted poorly at times and compromised my responsibility to do no harm to my children.  Like the fiercest of Mama Bears, I have defended my little ones against bullies but there are also times when I’ve failed to protect them from myself.

It’s hard, this human thing.  Sometimes we hurt each other with the things we say or do.  Other times we change things for the better. Many times, the best thing we can do is nothing at all.  How is one to know for sure?  I guess, since there’s no universal guide about what we should do, we can only discover what we would do and continue to think about what we could do.

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