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.

A Parenting Invitation

Fellow parent,

Let’s not compete for martyrdom by comparing the hours of sleep we’ve missed.

Instead, let’s lift each other up with loving commiseration over the hard work we each do.

Let’s not insinuate that some parents are lucky to have children who sleep well, eat well, behave…

Instead, let’s acknowledge that it is hard work and intention, not luck, that bring success.

Let’s not be bothered by people who dismiss our concerns as insignificant and tell us that parenting only gets harder.

We need to support each other through the tough times right now.  Let’s remind each other that the rewards of childrearing make the drudgery worthwhile.

Let’s withhold judgment of each other’s parenting and avoid giving advice on how to do it better.

Instead, let’s respect that we’re each doing the best that we can and accept that our parenting styles differ.

Let’s not boast about our children under the guise of ‘humble-bragging.’  The insinuation of superiority is obvious and insulting.

Instead, let’s acknowledge the greatness in every child and celebrate their imperfections.

Let’s not talk about how our children make us crazy.

Instead, let’s tell each other how we’ve cried from disappointment in our own parenting behavior, and together, let’s figure out a way to do it better.

Let’s not ever pretend that we’ve got it all together.

Let’s be honest and expose our vulnerability so that we might learn to accept ourselves, and each other, more authentically.

Let’s not play that broken record called “I have no time to myself”.

Let’s choose to sing about how we had the courage to say ‘no’ to the ones we care for, in order to care for ourselves.

Let’s not line our parenting path with comparison and criticism.  It’s not a competition.

Let’s just be parents, traveling side by side, cheering each other on.

How To Raise Great Kids

raising-kidsA friend with young boys said to husband and me, “All I know is that I’m taking notes because y’all have great kids.”

If she only knew.

If my friend had any idea of the battles, tears, and transgressions that have been suffered on the front line of my family, she might not be as complimentary.  Or would she?  She, too, is fighting the good fight, showing up every day as a parent, armed with love, lists, laughter – whatever she has in her arsenal of tools.  She knows that parenting isn’t glamorous and that kids are far from the polished specimens we present to the world.

There are too many factors involved in parenting, too many individual histories and personalities, to define a ‘right way.’  But I want to offer my friend a guidepost for the inevitable times when she feels lost and discouraged.  For the times when she forgets that she has done, and is doing, great things.

Allow me to present my parenting manifesto. It was written after offering a desperate prayer:  “Dear God, help me not to mess this up.”  It reflects on basics – a long list of parenting wishes and intentions whittled down to the few points that I consider non-negotiable.

DO NO HARM:

May I have the consciousness to build up rather than break down; to guide and discipline rather than command and punish.

HONOR INDIVIDUALITY:

May I parent each child in a way that honors their uniqueness and makes the most of their potential. 

May I never make assumptions or goals for anyone other than myself.

PROMOTE SELF-SUFFICIENCY:

May I abstain from doing things for children that they can do for themselves.

May I raise confident, responsible beings who struggle less in the world because I had the foresight and strength to let them fail.

CARE FOR SELF:

May I remember to spend resources on myself so that I may not resent those I care for.

May I remember to sleep, take a time-out, deposit in my own emotional bank account, and smile at myself every day, that I might be a better parent.

BE HONEST:

May I refrain from the convenience of untruths to support my agenda.

May I fearlessly share enough of my life experience to illustrate the human condition so that my children will walk into the world with eyes open and minds prepared.

BE RESPECTFUL:

May I refrain from condescending to my precious little ones. 

May I show them the respect that they deserve, even when they are disrespecting me.

RETURN TO LOVE:

May I find compassion in the face of negativity.

May I replace frustration and anger with love.

May I always remember my one true organic intention: to love my children unconditionally, and never miss an opportunity to demonstrate it.

Children are clean slates when we receive them at birth.  They need us to bring our best game to the job of parenting. A parent’s only hope of inscribing a legacy without regret is to consciously and sincerely step into the challenge of parenting with open eyes, a generous heart and a flexible mind.  I wish all fellow parents clarity amidst the chaos, and a love that endures forever.

Deb

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.

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.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: