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.

The Language of Dis-ease

UnderwaterTreasure2Illness and injury get no respect. They are the pariahs of the human experience, cast off and despised as adversaries or at the very least, inconvenient truths. If we took the time to acquaint ourselves with these repudiated occurrences, we’d not only lessen our misery but also emerge as victors who have captured an extraordinary prize.

My career allows me to work with the infirm on a daily basis. As such, I am privy to the language of dis-ease, which, I would claim, is one of the richest and most complicated languages of any I’ve heard.

Dis-ease speaks in unlimited dialects unique to each person – a language unto itself that can only be fully understood by the person to whom it is being spoken. The problem and the blessing is that most of us aren’t fluent in this language. Even those, or especially those, who suffer chronically, struggle to understand the messages of their dis-ease.

A young woman has cancer but is in denial. Months past her diagnosis she won’t let her thoughts attach to the idea that her body is under siege and could inevitably succumb. To do so would feel too vulnerable – like opening the front door and setting out a welcome mat. She pretends that she is the same woman now as she was before, fiercely self-reliant and insanely productive.

As many do, she mistakes denial for survival mentality and thinks that if she refuses to let cancer change the outward appearance of her life, it will not change the inner.

“Good idea.” we agree. “Think positive. Don’t give in.” We look on dis-ease as the ultimate enemy – the criminal who robs us. But dis-ease is not the enemy. Our resistance to it is the actual thief.

A man has had surgery after an accident and will be out of commission for weeks. He has felt angry and impatient. He berates himself for the imagined avoid-ability of it all. This is akin to thinking that one could skip 7th grade if only one had been more careful.

There are lessons to be learned from difficult times that simply cannot be passed over. Setbacks are perfectly-placed opportunities for learning. How would we learn true patience if we weren’t frustrated beyond sanity? How could we know the depths of compassion from others if we weren’t ever desperate for help?

In my children’s elementary school they set aside an educational block called WIN – What I Need. During this time, the students break off into groups tailored to an area of deficiency. Life School has What I Need. Naturally, we’d rather go to recess than to WIN. But on that one day, perhaps a very difficult day when we’ve all but given up, something clicks and we GET IT. We get that we need to:

accept help
face mortality
learn how to prioritize
ask for what we need and want
shed vanity
learn how to channel anger and jealousy
surrender our agenda…….

The lightbulb turns on and we realize what life, our teacher, has been trying to teach us all these years. We have seen this problem before – back in ‘Relationship Breakup Class’ and in ‘Becoming a New Parent Class’, and in ‘Loss of a Job Class.’ It took another crisis for us to see it, but it all makes sense now. Life, the best teacher ever, refuses to give up on us. It keeps presenting us with new opportunities to learn.

Sister found me half-asleep, curled up on a couch in a quiet room away from the other partygoers for whom I had been pretending to be well. Ever so tenderly, she covered me with a blanket then silently crept away. A single tear materialized and a relaxed rush of emotion spread through my aching body. This one simple gesture was an enormous gift of caring that moved me and saddened me. How long had it been since someone had mothered me? How long since I allowed someone to try? Sickness was the circuit-breaker that blew my fuse, presenting the darkness I needed where I wouldn’t otherwise choose to shut down the overload.

If illness is knocking at your door, you can pretend you’re not home but it won’t go away. It’s there FOR you. Everything that happens TO us happens FOR us. Perhaps, instead of cursing dis-ease, we could thank it. Even if we don’t clearly see the lesson plan, we can be assured that there is one and can be grateful that this teacher has shown up to present it.

If we refuse to stretch our awareness and refuse to relax our grip on our incomplete understanding of life, we risk becoming bitter and fear-filled. Anxiety reigns in those who believe in ghosts. Dis-ease doesn’t want to hurt us and leave us empty-handed. It’s not looking for a fight, this sheep in wolves’ clothing. It wants us to grow.

Sometimes dis-ease brings us to the brink of death and dysfunction in order to see. Don’t be afraid. Open your eyes. Look with your heart. Let your mind expand. Find the gifts that are hidden beneath the surface like buried treasure.

There is beauty in dis-ease. I insist. I’ve seen it. Not in the person who ‘survived’ for the sake of living and returning to a premorbid state of being. The real beauty is found in the vulnerable one who dares to surrender to the message. The one who says, “I accept this poker hand and I raise the bet. I bet that even if I don’t win the pot at the end, I will still have learned something about playing the game. And I am content with that.”

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 Cheating Scandal

confirmationI may be going to hell.

Before I divulge the reason, I wish to make a statement on my own behalf. The following is an account of an isolated incident which has no bearing on my core standards as a parent.

Beagle missed the appointed Religious Education class during which he was meant to take an exam in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. So he had a make-up exam on his own time, in a private room, in which I joined him due to lack of waiting space.

Prior to the test date, I tried in vain to get Beagle to study. In a show of teenage defiance he staunchly refused. So of course he didn’t know the material. Beagle is a good student, unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable with, failing. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his leg started tapping nervously.

In my hand was the study guide that had been provided. It asked for lists: 10 commandments, 5 precepts, 7 sacraments….on and on. As I looked over the questions, I realized that I, a lifelong Catholic with a parochial school education, would struggle with this test. On the spot I made a radical decision to slip the answers to Beagle.

Pause for gasps and harsh judgment.

Did she just admit to helping her son cheat on a religious exam?!

Indeed I did.

Husband and I decided long ago that we would raise well-informed, well-rounded little people. This included a plan to study and practice religion within the parameters of our faith. We also agreed that it is foolhardy to expect them to embrace it any more than they embrace quadratic equations. Both are full of unknown variables and require a level of understanding that taxes the brain.

Beagle has been struggling in his faith. He likes to provoke me by claiming atheism.

“How can you quit on God when you’ve barely met Him?” I ask.

Despite his resistance, Beagle decided to go through with Confirmation. He took the name of St. Thomas because Thomas was a doubter, too.

The bishop started his homily with words of encouragement to all the parents, grandparents and godparents in attendance. He said, “You will not be judged by your child’s adherence – (or lack thereof) – to his faith…..You have done what you could. Now it’s up to him.”

I could be wrong, but I think the bishop looked directly at me and bestowed an absolution for my collusion in the cheating scandal.

When all was said and done, I quizzed Beagle. I needed one last attempt to affirm that he had learned something about religion in the past 16 years. “Just tell me, in your own words, what the Church wants you to know about being a good person.”

Beagle replied, “Don’t diss your parents. Don’t smack talk your neighbor. Don’t cheat on your wife or your god if you have one. Don’t kill, steal or do other things you know are wrong. And go to church every once in a while.”

I think he got the gist of it.

Sixteen

16If you weren’t a sixteen year old boy and embarrassed by me, your uncool mother, I would dance in the car like I used to and you’d join me.  We’d purposely embarrass ourselves and laugh at the reaction of others.

If you weren’t sixteen you wouldn’t hide in your bedroom.  You’d seek me out to share stories and jokes and music with me – like old times.

If you weren’t sixteen I’d compliment you and you’d believe me.  You’d hug me and not get antsy when I say ‘I love you.’

If you weren’t sixteen you’d admit that you get scared sometimes and would look to me for comfort.  You’d ask my opinion and not have to pretend that my words of wisdom mean nothing.

If you weren’t sixteen, you wouldn’t wear a perma-scowl to appear less sensitive than you are.  You’d allow yourself to feel.

But you are sixteen, like I once was.  I know what’s underneath that tough exterior of yours – the same generous heart, humorous spirit, and killer personality that I fell in love with so many years ago.  When you’re not sixteen anymore, these hidden gems will resurface.  People will marvel at the man you’ve become.  “Who knew?” they’ll remark.  A knowing smile will cross my lips, betraying my secret.  “I knew.” I will say.  A mother always knows.

 

Can I Be Without It?

An elderly client asked me to ‘wait just a minute’ because she couldn’t go out without her lipstick.  I chuckled at her vanity.  The very next day, after an early morning workout at the gym, I discovered that I’d forgotten my toiletry bag and had to go to work sans makeup and moisturizer.  Mortified.

I wasted a lot of energy that day on self-consciousness, half expecting people to gasp at the sight of me or politely look away in horror.  On the contrary.  I was alarmed that no one seemed to notice.

The experience had me thinking about all the silly things we’re attached to:  beauty products, habits, routines, opinions, feelings….So I posed a question to myself, ‘Can I be without it?’ and decided to experiment with letting go.

  • Husband kicked off my experiment by backing into something with my brand new car.  Can  I be without anger?
  • I rushed through my day, inner metronome beating faster than a clock.  Can I be without hurried steps and racing thoughts?
  • A Sudoku puzzle got the best of me.  Can I be without success?
  • The smartphone battery died.  Can I be without my Lifeline of communication?
  • I shared a fitting room with my teen daughter at the mall and noticed my aging form.  Can I be without self-criticism?

It might have been easier to leap a tall building in a single bound than drop the things I grasp onto for dear life.

Ekhart Tolle points out that, “Sometimes letting go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”  It doesn’t make logical sense, yet it’s true.

Peach agrees.  In one week she lost her beloved piano teacher to retirement, dear friends to a move, and a run for class president.  A whole lot of loss for a tween.  I offered the ‘everything works out for the best’ phrase and other unhelpful clichés, but given my own struggle with releasing, I was less than convincing.

Recently I’ve been watching my father, who appears older than his 78 years, fade away.  He is confronting a rapid loss of control over his mind and body.  Can he be without the persona of strength and resilience that provided the scaffolding for his family?  Can I?

Our attachments tether us and keep us from living unencumbered lives.  The degree to which we feel the pain of loss is the degree to which we have bound ourselves.  Perhaps the purpose is not to learn to be without the things we’ve adopted, but rather to be free of them, so that when they do pull away from us, it doesn’t hurt so much.  We could notice, without resistance, the point of attachment – the place where we’ve welded ourselves to an idea of who we are and what makes us whole – and not let it tear us apart.

The simple wisdom that states, ‘You can’t take it with you when you die.’ is universally applicable.  We can’t take our hopes and sorrows any more than we can take the material goods we’ve amassed.  So why hold on at all?  Why not prepare for the Big Letting Go right now so that when the time comes we can breathe our final breath with peace?

The truth is, I cannot stop loss.  But I can enjoy freedom if I remember that I can be, and someday will be, without whatever ‘it’ is.

Father of the Year

hammock (2)I made a mistake – the kind that hurts the people you love.  It happened when I got lazy with my words and insulted husband in front of our daughters.  It started innocently with a conversation about Principessa’s birthday request last year – to take a surfing lesson with Dad.  Neither had surfed before but husband easily picked up the skill, like most agility-related things he tries.  Peach remarked that she’d like to learn to surf and would like to take a lesson.  “No need,”  her sister remarked, “Dad can teach you.  He was really good.”  To which I absentmindedly replied, “Maybe not.  He’s a horrible teacher.”  Ouch.

Husband got angry.  I got defensive.  Later that night, having managed to strip myself of stubborn pride, I sat us all down for an apology.  It was a teachable moment at my expense about taking responsibility for one’s words and attitudes.  All this to say that my transgression made me reflect on husband with less of an ‘I’ve been married for 19 years and have earned the right to say what I want’ mentality, and more of a compassionate ‘Look at the magnificent man I just threw crap at!”  (This, the same man who tried to teach me to snowboard and almost knocked my teeth out with his knee, which is why  I say he’s a terrible teacher.  But I digress.)

Husband is the man who, when accused by the teenaged Principessa of being disconnected from her, Googled articles on fathers and daughters to better understand how to mend their relationship from her point of view.  Despite his efforts, Principessa holds tight to her assessment.  I’m led to believe by parenting experts that this is normal separation-type behavior and completely age-appropriate.  Whatever, it’s still frustrating.

Because Principessa doesn’t know what a great dad she has. I’m fairly certain that my father didn’t research ways to connect better with me. The parenting standards were different.  An elderly friend offered this generational divide – she said she had a good father, one who didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t beat her.  Oh yes, and he didn’t give her away when her Mom died.  Lucky girl.

When Principessa pulled her wild card – the one that reminds us that she has only one year left in our house before college so we better appreciate her  – husband called her bluff.  He proposed a year-long commitment between the two of them.  During the 52 weeks until Principessa graduates, they would commit to one day per week to do something together – just the two of them.  He did the math out loud, “That’s 26 ideas apiece. Sunday nights.  You and me.”

It sounded a bit like husband was challenging Principessa to a street fight, but she accepted the terms nonetheless.  I sensed nervousness on both sides.

As you can imagine, it’s been a rough start.  Finding time is always a challenge.  But neither are willing to surrender.  They bake together, go out for ice cream, exercise….and they sometimes argue.  But at the end of the day, they’ve made a deposit into their relationship bank account.

I suspect that the significance of husband’s efforts will bounce fruitlessly off of Prinicipessa’s  surly attitude.  Like a typical teen, she’d die before she’d release her claims that Dad is uncool.  Lucky for him, teenhood is not a permanent condition.  I envision a day – far, far, away – when Principessa will reflect on this time with appreciation.  “We had such fun!” she’ll say.  Husband will repress his desire to strangle her and will reply, “Why yes, we did.  We always had fun.”

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