The Joy of Reunion

reunitedI arrived at the bus station after midnight to collect my college daughter for Thanksgiving break and found myself ensconced in a scene that resembled a Hallmark movie.

Families waiting in street-lit darkness are unable to conceal their excitement as they jump from their parked cars at first sight of the incoming bus that would deliver their babies back home.

Girls hug unsuspecting brothers who are in turn befuddled by the uncharacteristic gesture of affection from a sibling rival. Fathers show vulnerability of emotion. Mothers grin and squeal, beyond ecstatic.

Tears blossom in my own eyes as I watch love unfold in micro-bursts all around me. Generosity of spirit abounds in these reunions. Not a single trace of stress or apathy affects anyone in this moment. It is pure love. Emotional gold.

Principessa and I are alone for the ride home and we chat without pause, catching up in a way that can’t be accomplished in our weekly phone calls. There is touch and expression and presence to satisfy my hungry soul. I soak her up like a thirsty sponge, knowing that I will surrender her to an eager family, dog included, who will launch at her when we walk through the front door.

Sisters reunite with giggles, telling stories into wee hours, long past a rational bedtime. But this mother will never suggest sleep over loving connection. I sit stealthfully at the bottom of the stairs, listening with satisfaction and a full heart.

These are the moments to live for. These are the memories to cherish when babies are grown. We may lament their departure from the nest, but recognize that the space and time between us provides a new gift – the joy of reunion. We aren’t privy to it in the days of constant togetherness.

In days of yore, I would sell my right arm for a moment of solitude. Now, the frequent aloneness stretches me to a point of discomfort. But I remind myself to be flexible, that I will not break. Like the potential energy stored in elastic materials as the result of their stretching – the more stretch, the more stored energy. The more I let go, the more I appreciate the rebound of love.

The thrill of loved ones coming and going is a new joy. A new bounty to be thankful for at this year’s holiday table.

The Storm Before the Calm

torn piece of paper with divorce text and paper couple figures

A Dear One is divorcing and her teen daughter hates her.

“Don’t try to fix it.” I advise.  “Let her be angry.” The truth is, this girl wants to be angry and divorce is a well-suited excuse to unleash her rage.

You want your daughter to see from adult eyes – to feel even a tidbit of hope that divorce will make life better instead of worse.  But this girl’s heart is not ready to mend, for it has just begun its breaking open.  In youthful naivete, this tender thing was blind-sided.  In time, she may forgive.  Or not.  Some carry torches of pain for a lifetime.  This will be her choice.  Your job is to love through it as best you can.  Love her.  Love yourself.  Love the circumstances that challenge you to rise above.

You asked my advice and hoped for a remedy to a situation that is unsolvable in a sentence or a phone call or a pocket-guide.  Finding neutral for yourself and your revised family unit will take time that you don’t want to spare and patience you don’t think you possess.

You speak to me of plots and plans and you admit that you’re not thinking straight.  How can you? You are being tossed against obstacles like a tiny boat in a raging sea and you fear you may drown.

My job is not to dive in after you at risk of getting swept up by the current.  I will not agree or disagree with your manic declarations.  It won’t serve anyone if I immerse myself in the drama.  I need to stay on solid ground like the lighthouse keeper, shining a light so you know which direction to move in.

I would remind you that you are stronger than you realize.  You are a survivor.  But remember, strength doesn’t always look pretty.  It cries sometimes.  It reveals things that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed. Vulnerability is a place of healing.  Trust the process. Let it transform you.  Permit yourself to be human.  Forgive yourself twenty times a day.  Then do it again.

These are ugly times.  Hard times.  But not impossible times.  You have come so far.  It took courage to say the ‘D’ word and mean it.  You must continue to be brave to survive the fallout.

Those who love you will endure with you.  Please keep your faith.  Even the most terrifying storms pass.  This darkness will lift and reveal a new calm.  Your sweet, conflicted daughter will surface.  You will learn that you can stand alone in your own shoes.  And one day, you will smile without trying because joy has returned.

Deb

Letter to My Future Daughter-In-Law

daughter-in-law-Dear Future Daughter-In-Law,

I don’t know you yet, or even if you exist.  But I think about you a lot.  You’ve influenced so many of my parenting choices while raising a son.

I was thinking of you when I taught my son how to do laundry at the age of 6, and to make his own meals and clean the house.  He will not assume that these jobs belong to someone else – especially not a female companion.

My son was raised to be self-sufficient for his benefit and for yours.  He is capable of a great many things because his father and I allowed him to try and to fail.   But he is not perfect.  Please don’t berate him for the things he doesn’t do for you or your house or your children.  No man can be everything. And every man needs appreciation.

I’m sure he’ll complain to you about the fact that he never got an allowance and always paid for the privilege of using a cell phone.  Perhaps you had a similar upbringing, or not.  Together, you will have to decide if this is a good idea for your own children.  Will you think of it as an undue burden or as a worthwhile discipline?  Will you be the saver and he, the spender?  Just remember that money has only the meaning and power you assign to it.  Don’t let it come between you.

I wonder about your parents too.  What values did they instill?  Will we all get along when we sit across the table from each other at a family gathering?  Or will it be stressful work to endure each other?  As a daughter-in-law myself, I know that it is a lifelong practice to find balance with extended family.  But it can be done.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear the time when I have to surrender my boy to you.  I know you won’t be ‘taking’ him from me because he has already begun his process of separating.  But I also know that he will defer to you, as he should, and that you will have a greater influence on him than I.  I won’t be that stereotypical interfering mother-in-law. I will respect you and commit to seeing what my son sees in you.  All I ask is that you afford me the same generosity in return.

I hope that we will love each other and be equally pleased in gaining our unique relationship.  But even if this is not the reality, we still have something very important in common- we love the same spectacular boy who deserves the best we can give him.  Let’s, at the very least, agree to unite where he is concerned.

My dear girl, I am praying for you.  May you honor and learn from every experience that leads you to my son so that when the time comes, you will recognize and appreciate the gift that was groomed especially for you.

On Grown & Flown

I’m delighted to contribute an essay to Grown & Flown, a wonderful website and blog about parenting teens and young adults. My current piece about birth order and the emptying nest was just published. As parents we try to give our kids what we think they need, but they may have different ideas about what they want. And it may relate to their birth order.

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

Thanks! Deb

The Evolving College Student and the Reluctant Mother

EDThe honeymoon period is over for my college freshman. Roommates are no longer vested in showing only their best selves. Their patience for each other and for their cramped living quarters is wearing thin. Par for the course, I inform my daughter, but my advice is unsatisfying. She is the one who has to live with the stress.

During our rare visit with her, I notice a new nervous habit and reach out to steady her shaking leg. My people-pleasing first-born feels the weight of her own expectations for academics, sports, and social pressure. And she hasn’t yet discovered the impossibility of satisfying every demand.

Observing her in her college atmosphere feels like observing an animal in the wild. She is familiar enough, yet so very different from the girl who nervously parted from me with a crushing hug and tremulous voice just six months ago.

One senses a maturity-in-residence, not quite adult-like or permanent, but more of a stepping-up-to-the-plate persona. Having had to ‘rise to the occasion’ and exert independence in a variety of new, and sometimes terrifying situations, she radiates elevated self-esteem.

My observations of this transformation mystify me. I notice myself withdrawing into my own thoughts, stepping back a pace or two for fear of disturbing the natural order of things. Here, on my daughter’s turf, I am not in charge – not by a long shot. I know that I am welcome, but what is my role?

I dissect the situation like a wildlife researcher and get the strange feeling that I am actually part of the study – as if I am part of a documentary film narrated by Jane Goodall.

Look at how the baby monkey has adapted to its new environment, slipping into place in an unfamiliar social structure. Now watch how the mother monkey, when allowed to visit the baby, displays uncharacteristic behaviors. She offers ritualized mothering gestures but carefully takes cues from her baby about how much is acceptable. She appears to be out of sorts, almost neurotic, in this habitat. Notice how she follows the baby, never leading the way. She seems unable to take her eyes off the baby.

True, this. My every thought and attention is directed toward my daughter. I snap endless photos of her as I did when she was first born, trying to capture her essence. I anticipate pulling out my photo library for friends when I return home, boring them to tears with elementary stories of my daughter’s every expression. ‘In this photo, she was telling a joke. In this one, she was waving goodbye….’

My mind can hardly process the evolution of my college student, which is happening at warp speed.

We sit down to dinner at a restaurant of my daughter’s choosing and she remarks about her favorite items on the menu. She orders first then leads the conversation with questions for her father about his job. (What?!)

He takes the bait and they launch into a mutual exchange of questions and answers. This unusual conversation is followed by a debate on current politics. (I begin to feel dizzy.)

After a lively exchange, daughter turns her attention to me and asks, “Mom, how are you? Tell me about your life.”

By now I am close to fainting from shock.

“That’s it,” I think. “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”

Where are the dramatic teen stories? The complaints about teachers? I’m loaded with advice about these topics. Perhaps you’d like to know how to get a stain out of your favorite shirt? Oh, you figured it out? Good on you.

Adjusting to this new, poised version of my 18 year old is a challenge I hadn’t prepared for. Where my husband easily jumped aboard the speeding train that is our daughter, I had barely arrived at the station. In our absence, our little girl blossomed.

I am ecstatic, truly. But the expression on my face betrays melancholy, if not utter confusion. Disappointment in myself sets in, for I am unable to pull myself together to be the beacon of light I wish to be.

My daughter doesn’t seem to notice my struggle, or is too polite to mention it.
I absentmindedly wonder what else she isn’t saying. Is this a performance of sorts to reassure the nervous parent? My mind simply cannot settle on acceptance of what is unfolding before me.

The long ride home is silent, punctuated by tentative queries from Husband about my emotional well-being. ‘I’m fine,” I reply without conviction, then take to letter-writing by way of explanation to my daughter who may also be bewildered about my strange behavior.

Upon unpacking at home, I am surprised to find a letter stuffed into my bag by my daughter. In it, she details her own mixed feelings, offering an awareness of the major changes taking place within her.

‘I find it thrilling and scary to be taking control of my life, yet am pleased to feel confident in making decisions.’ she reveals.

The letter closes with a dose of gratitude and an affirmation of devotion to a family who is ‘never far from my mind and whose advice I still seek and appreciate.’

Cue the waterworks and the narrator:

“See how, despite the baby monkey’s independence, it checks in with the mother’s response for feedback and reassurance. The mother is placated and begins to assimilate her level of involvement accordingly. This mother-baby pair is learning how to individuate whilst honoring the bond between them.”

One day, this experience of separation, full of confusion and transformation, will all come together in a fond memory of how it felt to be a family in flux, emerging as it must into a new phase of life.

Fighting With Teens

gun fightThey say you shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight. But if you don’t realize that teen son is packing heat, you arrive unprepared and end up getting shot.

I knew that Beagle wouldn’t welcome the punishment I was prepared to dole out, despite the fact that he was undeniably guilty. I expected recoil. But I upped the ante when, moments before our showdown, I unveiled an unrelated infraction for which I decided to deliver a stern lecture. Tacking this layer onto my agenda was a bad idea.

My carefully prepared speech went out the window with my civility and before I knew it, shots were fired. Accusations and judgments were flying back and forth with escalated voices. It was a verbal brawl of mammoth proportions – the kind in which things are said that have never surfaced before. Unspoken judgments on another’s essential character and personality, that when revealed, can cause irreparable damage.

Somewhere between “you’re the worst mother ever” and “I can’t do anything to please you” Beagle drew his weapon and shot me directly in the chest. “I HATE YOU!!!!!” he declared. My body recoiled from the impact. I might have slumped to the ground had I not been leaning against a table. The fire in my beloved son’s eyes, the stone-cold look on his face….he meant it. And it hurt. Really bad.

Fighting back tears with dwindling resolve, I squeaked out one last explanation. “Parents yell when they’re afraid. Im afraid for you. That’s all it is.”

I’m afraid that my son will become an addict. I’m afraid that he’ll die in a car accident, impregnate a girl, flunk out of school, or, heaven forbid, forget to say please and thank you. Seriously, the scope of my parental concerns is deep. Mostly, the fear is wrapped up neatly in a rationale mind. But when unleashed, it runs wild, creating a storm of discontent for everyone.

Husband tried patching my wound with positive affirmations and a reminder that rebelling is part of the natural course when a child pulls away from the family. Agreed, but do they have to shoot you to make sure you don’t follow?

Early the next morning I drove to a yoga class where I fantasized that I’d find the Buddha himself handing out peace on a platter. Instead I found Joe, a fellow yogi, who happened to be waxing on about the wonderful relationship he had with his grown son. I muttered something about my own sad state of affairs, expecting him not to understand. He must be one of those lucky parents who got a rare unicorn in the form of a trouble-less child.

Dearest Joe rolled his eyes and groaned as he recalled his own experience of parenting teens. “There was a LOT of screaming.” this mild-mannered man revealed. “It was hell.”

Hope coursed through me. Joe and his son were living proof that the wounds inflicted from teendom can heal.

I’d be the first to tell the mother of a rambunctious toddler, “Don’t worry. It’s all a phase. Ride the waves.” But in this tsunami of teen parenting, I can’t even find my surf board most of the time, never mind ‘ride the wave.’

Beagle and I are recovering from our assault on each other. There’s lots of tiptoeing around and polite exchange of pleasantries. Soon, I expect, we will overcompensate with kindness in the way of apology. Eventually the wounds will close but they will, no doubt, leave a scar. How can they not? Silly, hurtful humans.

Friend reminds me of a time in the recent past when Beagle headed off to a sketchy situation with some knowledge of the inherent danger. He ran out the door with his back to my well-wishes and cautionary words. Ten seconds later he reappeared through half-opened door to say, “Mom, if I die today I just want you to know – you did a good job.” And then he was gone.

I will take that little gem now and hold it to my heart. Evidence that love is real. No matter how ugly we get on the outside, we still cherish each other on the inside – where it matters most.

The Scenic Vista

scenic vistaA friend who is ahead of me in the parenting timeline predicted that my first-born would return from college with a grateful heart. The distance from home and family would create the necessary space for a paradigm shift. And so it happened in the form of a letter.

‘Dear Fam,’ it began. ‘I never realized….’

Principessa, overflowing with new-found insight, detailed aspects of our family values, traditions, and relationships like a seasoned philosopher. She thanked us for our support and expressed pride in our family. I was humbled by the sentiment. But the real reward was a section on self-reflection in which Prinicipessa’s blossoming confidence shined through.

She listed an inventory of attributes that have served her well in her first semester at college – her ‘toolkit’ she called it. It included communication skills, resilience, self-worth, humility, responsibility, hopefulness and faith – all of which she attributed to parenting skills.

When I recovered my tear-soaked eyesight, I breathed a sigh that I might have been holding onto for 18 years. Since the onset of motherhood I wondered if I was doing parenting ‘right.’ Even with the knowledge that right and perfect don’t exist, I longed for reassurance that my choices would, at the very least, have a net positive effect.

I’m still on the parenting highway with a long way to go. But this brief return of a college-aged daughter has been like a rest stop with a scenic vista. A chance to get out and stretch my weary self, breathe in the big picture, and offer gratitude for the journey.

I look back on the road we’ve travelled and wonder how we arrived safely at this point. Husband and I knew we wanted to take this family trip through life, but let’s face it, we had no idea where we were headed or how to get there. None of us do. We hop on board with the vaguest idea of what parenting has to offer.

Taking stock from this spot, I realize that this is for the best. No human can trump the trip-planning skills of life. We can prep and plan but life will take us off-road through adventures we never dreamed of.

Like a good geocacher who has found a treasure, before I leave this resting place, I will offer these nuggets of observation for those who trail me in time and space, in hopes that it will ease their journey.

  1. It’s all going to be okay. This is not to be confused with ‘nothing bad will ever happen.’ Trials will arise and roads will be blocked. Each is an invitation. You will either find your way around them or you will crash mightily. Either way, life will go on and so will you. Find comfort in that.
  2. The fact that you don’t know where you’re going doesn’t mean you won’t arrive. Just follow the signs and dare to explore. You have what it takes. I promise.
  3. Love really does conquer all. At the end of the trip, love is all that matters. Loving each other, loving the self, and loving life is the hardest, simplest, and most valuable aspiration in the world. Return to it as many times as you stray from it and it will welcome you home.

Life beckons me to return to the reality of the road where I likely will lose sight of this sweet perspective, at least temporarily. Letters of reassurance from grateful children may be far and few between. Rough travel is bound to surface and challenge my bolstered confidence in parenting. But having reached this point, I can say with certainty that the view is worth the struggle.  Stop and enjoy it when you get the chance.

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