Who Am I? And When Will I Know?

Peach came to me with a delighted look on her face after receiving a compliment from a friend who told her, “I wish I had your life.  You’re so cool.”  This surprised Peach who, of course, spends time thinking the same thoughts about others. 

She repeated the words several times, testing my reaction, seeking validation and convincing herself that it could be true.  ‘Cool’ isn’t a concept she’d tried on before.  Did it fit?  Could she pull it off?  We are what we believe we are, but how do we know what to believe?

I wish I could say it’s only tweens and teens who absorb the opinions of others in order to define themselves.  But too many times as an adult I’ve caught myself feeling good or bad based on another person’s criticism or compliment.

In my book, Tween You and Me:  A Preteen Guide To Becoming Your Best Self, I advocate for girls to know themselves, be themselves, and love themselves.  What I don’t highlight is how challenging the first step is.

Figuring out who we are is lifelong work.  We’re like a slow-cooked meal that needs extended time to simmer before emerging from the pot in the form of palatable dish.  Becoming a mature person who understands herself takes patience and practice.  It requires us to spend time on the inside, releasing the flavor of us, bit by bit.

A sage will advise you to ‘Listen to your heart’ or your gut, or some such organ, to guide you through life.  But if we haven’t established a relationship with our innards, this advice is useless.  We’re likely to choose the more convenient but tenuous path of adopting the world’s idea of who we should be.  Seeing ourselves in the mirror of the world can be helpful, but the world can only show us how we are.  It can’t define who we are.

Certain Native American tribes had naming ceremonies, sometimes beginning at birth.  The name reflected a virtue the parents hoped for the baby to have.  This would be replaced in adolescence in response to a strength for which the child was known.  As an adult, another name might be granted to reflect an expectation for the person to live up to.  The process of identification was fluid.

The goal in getting to know yourself isn’t to land on one comprehensive definition.  The goal is to become skilled enough at turning inward that you can see, understand, and act in accordance with your true vision and values as they apply to any given moment. 

As parents, we want this for our children.  We want to know that they’re armored with self-confidence and immune to the judgmental world.  We want for them what we still don’t possess for ourselves 100% of the time.  The best we can do is meet them where they’re at, not trying to change anything, and not expecting adult-level responses to the feedback that hammers them every day from all directions.

I offered Peach an observation of my own.  “I see a girl who is growing and learning every day.  I see a girl who is a good friend and loves her family.  I see a girl who wonders about things with an imaginative mind and works tirelessly at creating.  This girl has ideas worth sharing and a future that’s bright. And I think that makes you pretty cool.”

Peach smiled at this and said, “Thanks.  I think I can see that too.”

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.

A Girl’s Wishes

sad butterfly 1I wish my father would have been kinder about fat girls. Perhaps I wouldn’t have starved myself in order to appear well-under the imagined weight that was the threshold of his love.

I wish the schoolboys wouldn’t have judged other girls harshly, finding fault with models and actresses and teachers. Every criticism, though not directed at me, prompted my own inner critic to register a list of unacceptable traits and unrealistic expectations of perfection.

I wish that advertisements would have been honest about beauty and the need for improvement. Perhaps I wouldn’t have wasted so much money and time on fixing myself.

I wish my boyfriends didn’t believe me when I pretended not to care that they flirted with other girls. I might not have crumbled on the inside while learning to put on a pretty face.

I wish my friend’s father knew that nicknames aren’t always welcome. Perhaps I wouldn’t have doubted the me I knew, compared to the me he labeled.

I wish someone had taught my high school crush to be gentle and kind when letting a girl know that he’s just not into her. Perhaps my veins wouldn’t have turned to ice and colored my future relationships.

I wish I would have had the courage to say ‘no’ and to register my honest opinion.  It might have spared me regret.

I wish I hadn’t needed boys to affirm my self-esteem. But I did. I was human. And I was girl.

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 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.

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