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.

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.

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.

Distance Parenting and Curve Balls

parenting worryWaking to a text from my college Freshman declaring “I’m scared,” was enough to give me a mini heart attack. Her physical safety had been inadvertently threatened by the thoughtless act of a misguided roommate. A week’s worth of distance-parenting ensued as my daughter found herself involved in an intense process that resulted in removal of said roommate.

Supporting Principessa from afar was a frustrating experience. I wanted desperately to rescue her, coddle her, speak for her… As mothers do, I wanted to kiss the boo-boo and make it better. Not unfortunately, the miles between us prevented any such nonsense, which gave Principessa the opportunity to rise up and shine through adversity.

Principessa had the wherewithal to handle herself with maturity and sensibility. Witnessing her instant evolution from child to young adult was gratifying to say the least. I felt as if I had arrived in a place I had dreamt about for years. It was a place that validated my (and Husband’s) work as parents.

Husband and I shook our heads in disbelief at the insanity of it all. As parents, we send a child off with hopes that we’ve prepared them for life. But we can never prepare for every conceivable situation. We can only hope that the skills they learned will serve them when life throws a curve ball.

When all was said and done, I felt relieved, of course, but also a bit damaged – strung out from sleepless nights of worry and days filled with phone calls. A week’s worth of uncertainty had taken its toll.

Friend asked why I hadn’t ‘freaked out’ about this violation to my first-born. I could thank yoga, meditation, prayer, denial, level-headedness, or any number of tools in my toolbox. I’m not really sure what held me together, but there was the underlying belief that Clarity works better than Chaos. I can’t allow Chaos to run the show, especially when my kid’s safety is on the line. Besides, I’d like to save ‘Freaked Out’ for an unidentified special occasion – one that can’t be solved with sanity. One that hopefully will never arrive.

Launching A Child

Woman-saying-goodbye-FarewellMy sister-in-law questioned my sincerity when I texted that I was having fun moving my eldest daughter into college for the first time. All bets were on me coming apart at the seams.

I had given ample indication of emotional fragility in preparation for this momentous occasion. In the weeks following high school graduation, a song on the radio, a memory jogged while driving past a playground…anything, or nothing, could turn me to mush instantaneously. The world conspired against me, it seemed. How else to explain the untimely (or timely) arrival of an email from a photo-sharing site titled, ‘Your life 7 years ago’ which showed images of my college Freshman in elementary school. Cruelty, I say.

The fact that college move-in day landed on my birthday heightened my self-pity. ‘Worst birthday present ever,’ I grumbled. But my conscience was having none of it. Just days before, I was informed of a local high school graduate who had died in an accident. His mother, I realized, wouldn’t be able to transition her son to the next phase of life. In solidarity with this mother, I vowed to enjoy the privilege before me.

Kahlil Gibran says that children never belong to us. They only come through us. I’ve had to remind myself of this countless times in my parenting history. The urge to hold onto the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me is, at times, intense. But as the wise Dory says in Finding Nemo, “If you don’t let anything happen to ‘em, nothing will ever happen. No fun for Nemo.”

I have sent away a girl of eighteen years who, in my heart, might as well be four again; for the way I felt in separating from her was no less shocking. Dear ones have been asking how I’m doing. Impossible to answer. I’m ‘doing’ every emotion known to humanity, and have yet to land on a description that encapsulates the sensation of launching a beloved child.

My heart reaches out to every parent I crossed paths with on campus – the mother struggling to hold herself together, the parents at the pub drowning their stress, and the fathers – more than one – who were victimized by a phenomenon that Husband dubbed, ‘Dad-Shaming.’ Students, succumbing to the frenzy of the occasion, would periodically scream at their well-meaning fathers in public. “Dad! I know that! Let me do it! Leave me alone!!!!!”

In the next several years, these college students will morph into young adults. When they return, we will have to get acquainted with them all over again, leaving space for the child-cum-stranger whose tastes and manners may be grossly unfamiliar.

Meanwhile, we will be learning a new parenting style, conducted from afar and constructed on a whole new set of rules. We will love from a distance, always hoping, but never quite knowing, if it will be enough. We will worry and encourage and pray our way through it. And at the end of the college experience, we will wonder, as we do now, how did it go so fast?

On Children

 

The New You

brand-new-you1

image credit purefunfit.com

Dearest Daughter,

I love that you so clearly wrote your feelings in response to my spontaneous comment about not liking the New You.  I am equally unhappy that your email was written at 1:00 a.m.!  Why? Because that is very late and I worry, as mothers do.

I try hard not to share my worries because I want to project confidence for you.  Deep down, I believe that you’ll be fine, even when you make poor choices or even good choices that I don’t like.  I believe in fate and God and the goodness of Life.  But my human-ness and my mom-ness continue to plague me with what-if scenarios.

When you were a clumsy toddler, I watched with fear as you climbed a playground structure.  My hands were never far from your body, waiting – expecting – to have to catch you.  My mothering instinct is to protect.  Over the years, I’ve learned to subdue the urge to rescue you, even when you begged me.  Case in point: making you call the orthodontist to let him know that, again, you need to replace your retainer.  And that you will be paying for it.

While punishing me as a child, my mother told me, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”  I didn’t believe her.  I do now.  It hurts me to see you struggle, even when I know it will result in your favor.

As the first-born you bear the task of paving roads.  All along the way, my parental inexperience has been your guide.  You are my first child to leave the nest and I am learning how to reconcile my heartbreak with my pride.  Both emotions are strong and are battling for victory.

Last night, you captured a heartfelt but selfish comment from me.  When I said that I don’t like the new you, I misspoke.  I love all versions of you.  What I dislike is the feeling that my world is changing so drastically and so quickly.  You are living life your way, not my way, as it should be.  I envision myself grasping for the rope that tethers your boat to the dock.  But your ship is ready to sail.

You are branching out toward unfamiliar experiences, taking advantage of the bounty of youth, and it’s difficult for me to watch.  But my skepticism is not an indication of the rightness or wrongness of your choices.  As you pointed out in defense, you are consciously taking risks and risks are essential to growth.

Principessa, I trust in your core values.  I believe your intentions are pure.  You don’t disappoint me.  And I could never think less of you.

Thank you for pointing out that it’s also hard for you to see yourself changing.  We know that change is essential and beneficial but it’s often scary.  Now that we’ve exposed our mutual fear and shined a light on it, it looks less daunting.  Let’s agree that we won’t let fear get the best of us.

You worry that you’ll become someone you don’t recognize.  It’s true that you’ll stray from the person you’ve been, but you can’t lose yourself.  There is a part in each of us that is connected to our source. It cannot be severed. You are, and always will be, uniquely you by divine design.

If you forget who you are, how special and precious, just ask me.  I will pour my love into your heart and remind you of your value. As always, I will be here, with arms outstretched, ready to catch you if you fall.

Loving you more than you can imagine,

Mom

dr seuss you

The Secret to Life

savor-the-flavorA well-intentioned adult gave our soon-to-be high school graduate this advice: “Savor everything right now. This is the best time of your life!”

This one thought stimulated a frenzy of conversation about what it means to savor. Afraid that she would not grasp the concept and would miss an important passage into young adulthood, Principessa desperately tried to hold on to every Senior experience. One would have thought that she was living the last few breaths of her life the way she attacked each day.

We began to unwind her desperation with the help of our old friend Merriam-Webster who told us to
 savor the best in life: give oneself to the enjoyment of:

As Principessa headed off for her first parentless weekend away with friends, I had to check my emotions in the driveway and remind myself that perhaps I, too, needed to work more on savoring and less on sadness as I prepared to send her off to college.

Of many neighborhood parties that we’ve hosted, this weekend would mark the first at which Principessa wouldn’t be present. Her absence was palpable, to me at least. It’s a strange feeling to be without our family cheerleader.

I was tempted to lament the impermanence of these gatherings, but as I looked around at a field of families laughing and playing, and felt the palpable energy of their joy, I couldn’t deny the completeness of the moment. Life, and happiness, was happening, as it does.

I immersed myself so deeply into the experience, in fact, that I found myself wearing a silly grin from ear to ear. The pitch of his voice. The animation in her face. The sight of frolicking. The sound of laughter. I leaned in and felt it all while simultaneously stepping back to appreciate it.

In this savoring state, I burst forth with a toast of gratitude, “For this!” I said. It was a feeling of love that couldn’t be held be back. I’m fairly certain that at least a couple neighbors wondered how much alcohol I had consumed. But truthfully, I hadn’t had a drop. I was drunk on the moment. I had experienced savoring.

When Principessa returned home, she had a similar tale to share about her carefree time with friends. “I didn’t want the weekend to end because it was SO much fun. But I wasn’t sad either because I enjoyed each moment. I just went with it.”

Principessa discovered, as I did, that savoring is exactly the opposite of holding on. Trying to grasp experiences and freeze time is an exercise in futility that leads to regret. In contrast, being present for this moment, and this moment, and this one…never holding on for longer than it lasts, is the magic formula for savoring.

Be present. Feel. Appreciate. Let go. And life will be savored.

The secret to life is enjoying the passage of time.” James Taylor

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