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.

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.

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