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.

The College Kid Contract – Moving Home For The Summer

College children will be returning home next month and frankly, I’m more than a little bit nervous. 

With only one child left at home, I’ve become re-acquainted with the pleasures of order and cleanliness.

I would be the first to tell you that I love the chaos of family life.  There’s a feeling of purpose and satisfaction in the work of managing a household full of the dilemmas and disasters that accompany a clan of children.  And some of the funniest blunders occur when our household spins out of control.

But I’m not a glutton for punishment, and I’ve tasted the sweetness of post-parental peace.  I’m an entirely different person when I’m not overrun by a full house.  I’m kinder, more patient, generous, and thoughtful.  I call friends and my own parents more frequently.  And I relax, guilt-free!  Sometimes I even sleep late.

It’s glorious, this return to self.  It’s as if I’ve woken from a dream – a very full and joyous one – and found myself standing in my own shoes again.  There’s a vagueness about me, like the stupor one has upon waking, and it’s going to take some time to understand and appreciate it all.

At present, I’m facing two inbound teens who are recognizable but so very different from the tentative pair that packed up their lives 9 months ago.  They’ve had the chance to exert their independence in a variety of new, sometimes challenging, situations and they radiate confidence.

One would be labeled a fool for assuming that these young adults would morph back into the habit of obedience that preceded their college experience.   The over-18’s have been in the big wide world playing adult, sort of, but not really. Now they will appear at my doorstep with selective amnesia and forget at least some of the rules all of the time.

In an attempt to preserve my sanity this summer, I’ve decided to resurrect the idea of a family contract.  This time, the language is more formal, like the leases my college children each signed for their apartments next year.

I’m not aiming to make our home an unappealing place with rules so strict that big teens/young adults feel stifled.  And I’m certainly not interested in playing corrections officer.  I’m simply looking to create enough order and peace so that none of us feel the need to fight or flee.

This contract may not be welcomed.  And I won’t win any awards for the most popular parent.  But if all goes well, perhaps my children will see and appreciate the new, steadier version of me – the one without the bags under her eyes, calming sipping a cup of tea on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  The one who is likely to dole out more yes’s than no’s when her house and her life aren’t turned upside down.

……………………………………………………………………………………………..

Re-entry Contract

By signing this lease you hereby agree to the rules set forth herein which outline a basic code of conduct for the household.  This contract is binding.  Any violation of it will result in corrective measures including loss of amenities and forfeiture of personal items.  Expenses may be incurred.

1. RESPECT

Common spaces are sacred. They should be uncluttered and clean when not in use.

  • No dirty dishes on the counter or in the sink.
  • No articles of clothing dropped on tables, chairs or floor.
  • No random paraphernalia scattered on counters.

2. CONTRIBUTE

Each resident is expected to contribute to the work of the household. Chores are done by all, for all.

  • If you eat/sleep in this house, you are expected to help with food shopping, prep, and cleaning.
  • Don’t be limited to your assigned chores.  If something needs attention, take care of it.

3. COMPLY

All rules set forth by the parents will be adhered to without the need for reminders or warnings.

    • Parking in your designated spots in the driveway.
    • Doing chores in a timely manner.
    • Use of the laundry facilities for no more than one day.  Keep it moving!
    • No food in bedrooms.  No dishes left scattered around the house. (We don’t need to revisit the fruit fly infestation of last year!)

4. BE CONSIDERATE

Each resident is expected to add to the harmony of the household.

    • Ask permission when using something that isn’t yours.  i.e. CHARGING CORDS!!!!
    • Follow long-established household rules.  There are no excuses for not knowing expectations.
    • When inviting friends to the house, ask a parent first, and assume responsibility for their behavior.

In summary, we welcome you home.  May your brief return be a peaceful and enjoyable event for all.

___________________________________________________ ___________________

Support For A Child In Grief

I didn’t need to answer the phone to know that something was wrong.  Teen sons, in my experience, don’t just call Mom out of the blue.  A trembling voice confirmed my fear – something terrible had happened.  Beagle’s good friend, one of his posse, has died.

I find myself telling the news to everyone I cross paths with – not for any hope of consolation, but rather to solidify the truth.  Repeating the words moves me toward acceptance.  Beagle doesn’t know why, but he’s doing the same thing.  He didn’t want to talk at length about the tragedy, he just wanted to tell me, then hang up the phone and tell the next person and the next, until he could believe what he was saying.

In the hierarchy of horribleness, the passing of a child trumps the list of losses that one could encounter in a lifetime.  Few things are more cruel and bewildering.  When a life is cut far too short, the facade of relative safety and structure that outlines our typical days explodes, leaving us exposed to the elements of reality.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Life does not belong to us.  If it did, we would get to decide when it ended.

I have been around this block before, of course, and I know my way through grief.  But Beagle does not.  He is barely a man-cub and not yet fully versed in love and loss.  The time has come for Husband and I to teach lessons we had hoped would not arise for many years.

We cannot spare our boy any pain.  We can only hold a space for it, allowing it to express itself in any of its wildly varying forms.  We begin to paint a picture of grief, leading by example with unrestrained tears, voiced regrets, and demonstrations of strength and support.

We show and tell Beagle that no matter how mature you become, you will struggle with death.  The very fact that you have dared to love and connect to others means that you will suffer loss.  Try not to hate love for loss.  Try not to hate life for death.  Keep your heart open.  Don’t construct walls where doors should be.  And promise me you won’t subscribe to outdated stereotypes of masculinity.  Real men DO cry.

Beagle, you were meant to cross paths with your friend who left so soon.  The chapter of time with him is done, but the story doesn’t end.  The two of you will eternally be connected.  You will remember him and integrate him into your future with stories and rituals.  You will find ways to honor him.  You will introduce him to people who will never meet him. 

Eventually, happiness will touch your sorrow.  You will smile when you think of your time together instead of feeling drawn into the pit of your belly.  Don’t rush the healing. And don’t prolong it for anyone else’s sake.  Let it evolve in it’s own time.  Trust your heart to guide you. 

We were all lucky to have known this sweet boy.  Thank you, Beagle, for bringing him into our lives.  Know that we are here for you, supporting you as you leave the innocence and carefreeness of your youth behind.  You are now part of a club that no one wants to belong to.  You are far from alone.

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.

Where a Parent Really Is During Graduation

In a few days my son will graduate from High School and I won’t be there.  Well, physically I will be.  But I can’t account for my mind.  It will be wandering across acres of memories, reconstructing a captivating story of the boy we called Beagle.

Regular readers will recall that my boy-raising road was paved with its share of challenges.  But as it happens when one reaches the end of a worthwhile journey, the recollection of events, once digested, magically morphs into a more palatable version of a fairytale, complete with villains, heroes, and happy endings.

It’s only in hindsight that we’re able to connect dots that were laid down like a breadcrumb trail, solely for the purpose of finding our way back to that place we started in where pure, unadulterated love between parent and child reigned.

In real-time, when a child of ours declares his hate for his parents, we might crumble in despair.  When he fails a class, we might worry. When he suffers an injustice at the hands of a friend, we feel the hurt tenfold.  But when we watch him graduate amidst the pomp and circumstance, we see the culmination of all the horrifying and glorifying circumstances that brought him to this point.  The big picture in review makes sense.  He had to struggle some, and we had to suffer some in order to arrive at this moment of sweet relief and joy.

When one’s child graduates, there is a strange phenomenon of vulnerability that occurs during which any incident may elicit a poignant memory.  As this is not my first ‘Mother of a Graduate’ season, I recognize and welcome the anticipatory swell of emotions that shows up at random, unpredictable times.  Whilst bakery clerks may be caught off-guard by a suddenly tearful woman staring foggily into a pastry case because she’s thinking of the precious boy who used to accompany her there for treats, I am blissfully unaffected by my state of emotional undress.  There’s just no telling what catalyst will set off the waterworks in the weeks surrounding the launching of a child, and one can’t be bothered with corralling all those feelings.

Husband recognizes that I’m off-center and, wisely, doesn’t try to talk me out of tears.  Instead, we reminisce about our shared history with Beagle as if we’re discussing something that happened in the span of a day.  We talk about the tender way our son loved his dog and grieved its passing; the summer he patiently taught his sister how to ride a bike and dive into a swimming pool; the funny time at the store when the cashier handed him change and he pressed it back into her hand while whispering, grandma-style, ‘Go buy yourself an ice cream.’

These memories sustain us. The pits and peaks, the joy and pain are equal parts of the perfection.  It’s a mind-boggling miracle, really, this people-raising gig.  Somehow, the process unfolds exactly as it should, every time, resulting in unparalleled fulfillment of life.

Husband, insensitive creature that he is, presents a metaphor that brings me to my knees.  “Beagle’s life,” he explains, “is a train ride that we were on.  We’ve arrived at our stop.  It’s time to let him continue on without us.”  I envision myself on a train station platform, handkerchief waving and heart aching as my baby boy disappears around the bend. 

Husband tries comforting me with more analogies which only serves to open the wound.  He suggests that we’ve programmed the GPS up to this point, but now it’s Beagle’s turn to set the destination.  Lucky for us, he has proven that he’s competent in finding his way and surviving the inevitable travails of an adventure. Like the time when he and his friends decided to buy an old camper and take it to a concert for the weekend with less than $50 between them in their pockets.  I’ll leave the details to the imagination, but allow me to emphasize the point that Beagle did not once feel the need to call his parents for assistance.

Beagle will not likely recall his life the way I do. He may never understand how how his choices worried me, how his humor rescued me, or how his questions entertained me.  He won’t know how I doubted myself at every juncture and prayed continuously for guidance.  This is all ok with me, as long as he knows that he was, is, and always will be loved beyond measure.

The time has finally come for Beagle to claim the independence he has craved since before he could walk.  I have no choice but to trust that he’s ready.  As I sit amidst a crowd of loved ones at the graduation ceremony, I will share mutual pangs of longing for days gone by, coupled with indescribable satisfaction in present time.  Husband and I will squeeze each other’s hands a little too tightly, in order to balance the feeling of releasing our hold on the son we love so very, very much.

When all is said and done, after the diploma and handshakes and hugs, I will be replete and wrung out like a wet rag that was saturated with years of uncertainty and gratification during which I raised a young man.  My map of the parenting experience will be updated. The drama will fade and my prior concerns may seem silly.  All that will be left is appreciation for the gift of this child, this marvel who appears before me in a new light.

Pills, Pot, Profanity and Parenting

As I was leaving a parenting presentation at the local school on the topic of ‘Drugs, Alcohol, and the Teenage Brain,’ I caught up with a fellow mother of a teen boy.  We commiserated in hushed whispers about the pessimistic message of the presenter, fearing that an unintended ear would hear our true confessions. We know that our boys use substances that are frowned upon by social standards, aka laws, and we have learned to tolerate it – somewhat.

Call it self-preservation – or something more judgmental and harsh if you wish.  But don’t mistake it for ignorance, negligence, or lack of caring.  Countless conversations, teaching moments, threats, punishments and bribes have been employed at our discretion over 18 years.  And still, here we are, facing the dilemma of how to keep our kids on the straight and narrow.

When we begin the parenting journey in blissful naivete, we actually believe that we have control over how our kids turn out.  As if children ‘turn out’ – like a soufflé.  With thoughtful intention and unproven parenting prowess, we create a recipe for ourselves, certain that if we follow every instruction carefully, our result will be perfect, or at least predictable.  Plans shmams.

The illusion begins to deconstruct as early as the first tantrum when our little cherub learns to express his discontent.  It progresses to backtalk, profanity, sneaky behavior, lying….any rebellion that helps a child begin the natural separation from parent.  ‘Psychological differentiation’ they call it – an academic way to describe the tug of war between parent and evolving child.  If kids aren’t testing their boundaries, they’re not growing.

A professional colleague had a son who was delinquent and derelict by all accounts.  The mother, an educated and compassionate soul, endured a years-long struggle to set him straight.    Certain that she had failed as a mother, she all but gave up hope of him ever pulling himself together. The boy, a late bloomer you might say, transformed his life in his 30s and went on to study law enforcement.  He is now a judge.  I’ll bet he’s a cracker-jack judge, having had all that experience on the other side of the law.  I also bet that prior to his current career, there was plenty of gossip about how the boy ‘turned out’.  And lots of judgment about his parents, too.

Another friend has a brother who started smoking pot at the age of 14.  He wouldn’t quit until he decided that becoming a pilot was more important.  The point is this: the lives of our children are not about what we want for them.  It’s about what they want, when they want it. 

This is a hard pill to swallow for a conscientious parent. Parents are under pressure to produce a product that will pass quality control.  But to some degree, our real motivation is to satisfy our own need to have a child who makes us proud, or at the very least, doesn’t shame us. We want the ease of not  having to worry about the stability, safety, or success of our children.  We don’t want to be reminded that they are their own beings who have every right to make choices – good ones and bad ones. 

Long ago my son refused GPS tracking, aka Parent Stalking.  Thank goodness.  It has forced me to trust or to worry blindly – just like my parents did without the benefit (or curse) of constant contact.  When I feel the need to check in, I text the one question that summarizes my intent:  “Are you happy and safe?”  That’s really what I want to know.  More importantly, that’s what I want my son to ask himself.  I want him to check in with his own heart and mind.  If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, ADJUST COURSE.  I’ve found that the asking is enough to let him know that he is loved and that I’m here for him.

My threshold for alarm is raised quite high since the early days when I worried about kids not eating vegetables to the the present concerns of kids making choices about risky behavior.  Case in point, when teen son opened the pantry cabinet and found an array of delicious and very un-nutritious snack food, he turned to me in shock, grinning from ear to ear.  “You’ve given up, haven’t you?” he asked with delight.  “That deserves a hug!”  I accepted the hug with the same level of gleeful appreciation with which my son cracked open his bag of chips.

Sometimes our parenting doctrine gets in the way of our evolution.  It becomes a god we worship ritualistically without question.  At some point we must loosen the reigns simply because they become too hard to hold on to.  Which usually means that it’s exactly the right time to let go. 

This year I accompanied my son to the voting polls for the first time, where he cast his own vote based on his own thought process.  He was also called for jury duty and could be part of determining another person’s fate.  In the eyes of the law, he is mostly his own young man.  He knows his current mind, and his thoughts are valid, if not in line with my own.  He is experiencing his expanding heart.  He is living with his raging hormones.  And none of it begs me to interfere or to impose outdated restrictions.  It asks for freedom to live.

Wise adults tell children that they were placed on earth to shine their own light.  What if your child’s light is less like a lighthouse and more like a bonfire?  What if the very purpose of his life, the hope he gives, comes so far down the road that you can’t see it?  Maybe it’s in a form that you don’t yet recognize.  Maybe he is shining his light already but you can’t see past your disapproval of personality or behavior.

After all these years I have less certainty than I did before I became a parent.  Much of what I thought I knew was best for my children was misguided because it was based on my own ideas from my own life.  It turns out that ‘best’ is a nebulous and evasive concept.

We simply cannot know what is best for anyone but ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we don’t try to impart our wisdom or enforce rules that make our lives sane.  But we must remember that parenting is part of a bigger dance – one in which every child has the right to be his or her unique self, whether we like it or not.

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