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.

Happy Mother’s Day To Me

Peach,Beagle,PrincipessaDear kids,

Remember me, if you must, as the mother who bombed as the Tooth Fairy, did just okay with the Easter Bunny, and outright refused to entertain the idea of a mischievous Leprechaun.

Remember, if you must, that I ran perpetually late and occasionally showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Remember, if you must, that I struggled to contain my temper, cursed a little too much, and failed in the doting nursemaid realm.

But if you insist on remembering these things, remember also that I never said ‘no’ to the building of a fort, a party idea, or a wild haircut.

Remember that I encouraged you to create, even if it meant sacrificing 250 paper cups and several rolls of tape.

And know that I never lied about loving your creations – every last one- because you are a miracle to me.

You expect a lot of me, as you should; any mother worth her salt accepts this.  But she never promises to be everything to her child – only a really good someone who tried really hard.

Despite my most earnest efforts, you will complain about me to your friends, roll your eyes at me, and remind me of my mistakes in parenting.  And I will remind you that you made mistakes too.  We will laugh about it all and sit down to a game of cards, because that’s our style.

I adore you, my children, in a way that is beyond description.  I treasure what we have together.  Motherhood is the best thing I’ve ever done.  Thank you for giving me that title.

Love,

Mom

Playing Small

A friend, sitting by the community pool with several other mothers, listens with increasing irritation to their animated conversation which resembles a verbal contest.  The main theme: busyness.  The object of the game: one-upsmanship.   Who can claim the prize for the Most Overworked Mother?

Each mother in succession pipes in her list of parenting woes expecting sympathy, horror, or dare I say, admiration from the others.  The group serves as a collective listener though one is not convinced that they actually hear each other.  Rather, each is distractedly plotting her own strategy.

One woman, wearing busyness like a badge, pulls ahead in the game.  She has multiple children in multiple sports and activities.  None, of course, are grateful for what mother does to enhance their lives.  The conversation takes on a dramatic volume and pitch as this mother concludes with sweeping gestures to enhance her case.

Who will be crowned the winner?  Which poor, selfless, overworked mother has ‘it’ the worst?  Like a typical round of Monopoly, there is no end to this game.  The only real winner is the one who chooses not to play.  This is the mother who knows that complaining and blaming equal playing small.  This mother knows that an over-scheduled child does not make the schedule.  Mother does.

The pattern of giving too many yes’ and no enough no’s is one I’m familiar with.  In the blink of an eye, the family calendar fills to capacity and begins to bust at the seams, leaving mother in a puddle of exhaustion at the end of a day.  And always, though I forget sometimes, I am in control.

The desire to give children the world can obscure a mother’s judgment.  It can trick her into attempting to juggle flaming torches and spin plates on sticks while walking a tightrope.  When she tries this stunt and fails – because she will – mother may fall to the ground and, without thinking, blame her child for pushing her off the rope.  Silly mother.

Instead of egging her on with ooh’s and aah’s like a crowd at the circus, mother’s friends could say these words:

Get down here before you hurt yourself!  Your children need you in one piece.  You don’t have anything to prove.  There is no prize for scaling tall buildings in a single bound.  Your prize is here on the ground.  It is waiting for you to stop running around long enough to pick it up and hug it and tell it how much you love it.

 The prize will understand, eventually, if the love words include a ‘no’ here and there.  It may even thank you some day for setting limits in order to preserve sanity and closeness and family time.  At the very least, you will have prevailed in the Game of Life because you chose not to compete.  Instead of playing small, you kept your eye on the prize, your feet on the ground, and your heart in a grateful place.

Stop The Wind

My three year old son and I were playing at the lake.  I watched, amused, as the plan for his boats unfolded.  With an intense look on his face, he set to work on his fleet.  The wind was strong that day, repeatedly interfering with my son’s plans, tipping and scattering boats at the shoreline.

I could see my son’s frustration mounting.  Finally, he turned to me and demanded, “Mom, make the wind stop!”  I chuckled at the notion that my son thought I possessed that kind of power.  The would-be hero in me wanted – really wanted – to have that power.  An image of Deb Dunham, goddess of nature, waved her hand, effortlessly righting every wrong.  The longing to grant my child’s every wish, heal his every hurt, and protect him from every harm is my raw desire – unwise and impractical, yes, but very real.

I recall my baby’s first night at home.  A tiny, innocent, vulnerable little being in a too-big crib, in a too-big room, in a too-big world.  Too big to protect him from.  How would I ever keep him safe?  How would I keep my own heart from breaking when he suffered the inevitable hurt?

It occurred to me that this is the price a parent pays for the purchase of a love this big.  The amount of pain I would endure would be in direct proportion to the amount of love I feel.  And yet, I am willing to take that risk.

As the years go by, I am learning to rely on the natural balance of life as a stabilizer to keep me grounded, reminding me of the benefits of my limitations.  When I can’t be a perfect parent, my children learn tolerance for imperfection.  When I can’t do everything for them, they learn self-sufficiency.  The truth is, it is in not giving children all that they want that they receive all they need.  Rudolph Dreikurs said, “We cannot protect our children from life, therefore, it is essential that we prepare them for it.”

When my children are grown and re-inventing parenthood, I will empathize with their struggle to be everything to everyone.  And I will remind them to be gentle with themselves – for their benefit and mine.  After all, I will still be their mother, and they will still be running around with my heart.

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