Growing Up

On A Lighter Note

fullsizerenderToday’s photo is courtesy of my son. This is one of the thank you notes he wrote to his great aunt and cousin. Yes. He is 15, and this is his note. In addition to his ADHD, he also struggles with dysgraphia, which means that he has trouble putting thoughts on paper, battles with grammar, punctuation, word spacing, and spelling, and has nearly illegible handwriting. You can imagine how much he loves that I compel him to pen handwritten notes for gifts. This is why his last notes were completed today, nearly a month after the holidays.

Over the years I’ve learned to let go of my expectations for his notes to be neat. I’ve pushed content over form. It’s required a lot of deep breathing for the editor in me not to be hypercritical and to accept things as they are. I used to get all bent over the quality of the penmanship and grammar. Now I simply insist that 1) he spells the recipient’s name correctly and 2) he offers some personal information about the gift other than a simple thanks.

As I was reading over Joe’s notes today, this one made me giggle.

Dear Aunt Bobby and Mary Lynn,

Thank you for the toy train in a tin, 50 dollars, and the Peanuts puzzle. I was pleasantly surprised by the train. It reminded me of my childhood. It was also fun doing the puzzle. I can’t wait to see you again. 

Love, Joe

On Christmas Day when he opened the train, he put it together in the living room. Then when his brother opened his same set, the two of them attached their two small sets to make a larger one. And there they sat, watching it run around, a scene out of their days with Thomas the Tank Engine. After family had left, they took the tracks downstairs where they reassembled them and played with them some more. Joe did remark that day that the train was surprisingly one of his favorite gifts. Now we know why. It reminded him of his childhood.

I love that my 15 year old is maturing and now looks back on his younger days, seven or eight years ago, with misty nostalgia. And I love that things like this continue to make every day with my sons time that I too will look back on and remember fondly in the not too distant future.

 

 

Ruined Dinners, Reading Assignments, and Raising Adults

ScanJusnJoe04

Joe and I many years before it was time to grow up

Against my better judgement, I joined a book club today. I swore I would not do it again, but when the opportunity presented itself I found myself unable to say no. The book that pulled me in? How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Like many people over a certain age, I was raised by parents who expected me to pull my own weight from early on. They didn’t hover or harass me to ensure I was doing my job as a child and a student. I was expected to work hard, earn high marks, and contribute at home. They didn’t make me breakfast or fix my school lunch. They didn’t know I was eating Suzy Q’s and french fries when they weren’t around because they weren’t obsessed with my nutritional intake. They didn’t ask me about school projects. If my chores weren’t done, I was grounded. If my grades fell, they didn’t know about it until the report card showed up and then there would be consequences to bear. When my own sons arrived early and small, I started down a different path than my parents traveled. I was actively involved in every aspect of their young lives and I always knew what was going on with them. When Joe started his freshman year this August, it at last hit me that I have four years to turn this kid I manage into the kind of human who won’t need to call me to fill out paperwork in a doctor’s office, remind him of his phone number, or prepare food other than microwavable, plastic trays Yakisoba. Yikes.

The bookclub book, written by a Stanford University’s dean of freshman for helicopter parents invested in getting their kids into Ivy League schools via endless hovering and helping their children with grades, extra curriculars, and volunteer hours over more practical life skills like actually managing themselves, seemed like something I should read. Not necessarily because I am that helicopter parent. I’m not. My sons’ diagnoses with developmental and learning disabilities quickly curtailed my grandiose dreams of them attending Harvard and then perhaps Yale Law. Sure. Those things are still possible for them. Statistically speaking, though, those dreams (already a long shot for the brightest of typical children) become an even more unlikely possibility for my sons dealing with ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. All the hours and dollars I invested in those Baby Einstein videos could not have changed my sons’ brains. They are different, and I now can honestly say I am grateful for that. I’ve also found peace with the notion that they may attend community college or trade school instead of a traditional four-year university. And they may need to live in my basement a bit longer than my friends’ children as they mature and find their own path. It’s all good, though, because their issues have forced us all to be more resilient, more patient, and more understanding of the uniqueness of each person’s life path.

Even with all this, being the parent of children with “issues” has required a different type of helicopter parenting. I’m not pushing them regarding straight A grades or sports scholarships or college-application-worthy community service because the mere act of keeping up in school is hard enough for them. My challenge with helicopter parenting comes from years of having to be their voice surrounding their disabilities. Once you accept that your child is not typical, your job becomes finding ways to make them feel typical. Your days are spent creating a level playing field for them so they have the opportunity to experience the same feelings of success their peers experience. You take on tasks they might do themselves if they were a more typical child. You fill out their forms. You set up timetables for their school projects. You manage their schedules and make sure they get places on time and with the right materials because you know it’s hard enough for them to remember to put on two socks and clean underwear. And sometimes it’s hard to know when to back off and let them fall again once you’ve worked so hard to lift them up.

Because of my divided attention, I let go of some things I might have otherwise insisted upon if my sons were more typical like I was. I’ve been a little lax about regular chore completion. Luckily for me, despite my lack of regular follow-though on chores, my kids often remind me of my short-sightedness and present me with situations in which I must rise to the occasion. Last week, Joe saw that I was preparing a skillet dinner (you know…one of those dishes where all the ingredients touch each other) and he promptly lost his shit. He yelled that I had “ruined” dinner by allowing pieces of potato to mingle with pieces of sausage. Oy. The minute those words came out his mouth, I felt sorry for him. I blinked a few times and told him to leave the room. At that moment, he caught on to his colossal error and apologized for being an unappreciative creep. After a deep breath, I told him that I had a solution to his meal problem. I was going to offer him the opportunity to plan and prepare a few dinners so he can better understand what it is like to try to feed four people with different food issues. (While hubby will eat anything, Luke eschews veggies, I am currently gluten, soy, and dairy-free due to food sensitivities, and Joe is not a fan of meat.) Good luck, buddy. 

Tomorrow night is Joe’s first dinner night. Tonight he gets to research and plan his menu. Tomorrow after school I will take him shopping and leave myself available to field recipe questions and provide help with cooking utensils. I’m a little nervous about what I may end up having to ingest as part of this lesson in adulthood, but I have to admit that I am kind of excited too because this step is right in line with my book club read. It’s a growth opportunity for both of us. And it’s appropriate and right on schedule at a time when Joe is both capable of taking it on and in a safe place for a lesson because, if the meal goes south, we have peanut butter and jelly on hand that he can prepare instead. If you want to raise an adult, you have to be prepared for some missteps. As a teenager, I once made a batch of brownies using Pompeii Olive Oil (not even extra virgin) in place of regular oil. We all gotta start somewhere. Today, I start letting Joe learn what it is to be a functioning adult. I bet he’s really sorry he didn’t keep his mouth shut last week.

The Silence That Gave Me A Headache

 

When five days became five years…

 
I dropped our boys off for summer camp high in the Colorado Rockies this past Monday. It was a first for all of us, their first time going away alone (although they did have each other) and our first time being home without them for a week. When I drove down the dirt road away from them, it was bittersweet. I was excited for their adventure but already aware of the hole their absence was creating in my life. For fourteen years, these two beings have comprised the entirety of my reason for living. I hardly recall who I am outside the mantle of motherhood. And it’s at times like these that I feel most vulnerable and exposed. Who the hell am I anyway?

I enjoyed an oddly silent, solo lunch and a peaceful ride home without constant chatter about Halo and Mario Kart. I stopped at the store and bought groceries for two, cooked a meal for grown ups without having to omit ingredients, and enjoyed a drink with dinner. Hubby and I slept uneasily that night in a house that was too damn quiet, as if we noticed the missing heartbeats of the two neighbors who usually reside in the next room. I spent most of my week cleaning like a woman desperate to reclaim her once spotless home. Over three days I made a sizable dent in the clutter and bit by bit the house began to look like no one lived in it. It was a hollow victory. The cleaner it got, the emptier I felt. And that’s when, for a split second, I pondered my loss, not having a career to fill my days and fulfill my life. To derail that train of thought to nowhere good, I popped the cap on a bottle of hard cider because, well, I don’t have a job and 2 pm is 5 pm somewhere, and I smiled for my good fortune.

Big changes are on our horizon. The boys will be heading to a new school in 2016, which means a move back to the city for us. While I am dying to escape the suburbs and the HOA and the insipid neighborhood banter I never felt comfortable around, there is melancholy in my soul as we prepare to sell the only home our little family has ever known. And directly behind the gate we will walk through as we move forward, the gate through which all the possibility and potential of the future exists, lies the burial plot of things we’re leaving behind…sandboxes, playgrounds, slip and slides, and snow forts. Saying goodbye is part of moving on, but I have always been better at hello.

It’s been a rough week for me as I cleaned house physically, mentally, and emotionally. I am glad to be leaving some things behind, happy to explore new options and reinvent myself. Some things I thought I could count on, though, have evaporated while I stood in disbelief, grasping as they morphed from liquid to gas before my eyes like water vanishing of a scorching, summer sidewalk. I am better and stronger for this trial experience of life, once again, without children. Steve and I have talked about cashing in on our house and using the money to travel more with our sons before they move on to their own life adventures without us. The past fourteen years have been a blur, and we want to eradicate any potential for a Cats in the Cradle ending in this family. I will miss the things that are no longer part of my life, but I am curious what I will concoct to fill the vacant spaces going forward. 

We will claim our handsome, capable sons on Saturday and be grateful once again to have a disorganized house filled with bedlam. The time for permanent quiet is not long off now, and it’s approaching much more rapidly than I ever could have anticipated in June 2001 when Joe was born. But before it hits I think I will buy Luke that electric guitar he wants. I might buy that drum kit I have always wanted too and knock percussion lessons off my lifetime to-do list. If there’s one thing I have learned this week, it’s that silence leaves me way too much time to think. I should probably focus on doing things as noisily as possible from now on. Maybe I can get some pointers from our sons?

There Goes Summer

 

A summer tragedy

 
Now that our sons are older and more independent, one of my true summer joys is a day lounging at our favorite local pool, the small one with the reclining loungers, the water slide, and the vigilant lifeguards who shout “no running” at my kids so I don’t have to. Last week, the gods bestowed upon us an arguably perfect pool day. No menacing thunderheads hovered in the sky, the temperature was a pleasant and steady 83 degrees, and there was the lightest perceptible breeze, the kind that gently reminds you that sometimes all is right in your world. When mornings like that arrive, my day is set. Errands, appointments, laundry, and responsibility be damned. We’re pool bound. There is no other choice. Our fate is sealed. 

After wolfing down the sub sandwiches we picked up from Jimmy John’s on the way over, we began our idyllic summer sabbatical. My goal: complete summer surrender. From under my mirrored sunglasses, I lazily watched our sons take ridiculous leaps (meant to be impressive but in the end only exhibiting typical teenage goofiness) off the diving board while the playlist of LCD Soundsystem in my earbuds kept my feet moving just enough to burn a few calories while I let the sun work its magic. Nothing could be better, I mused to myself, swept away in the glee of a few hours’ worth of unadulterated leisure in the middle of the work week.

That was when he stepped in front of me and everything changed. He must have been about seven, maybe eight, with sandy blonde hair. He stood out because, unlike the other children who had arrived in the same daycare group, he was alone in wearing street clothes and Crocs in place of brightly colored swim trunks and bare feet. A bold orange cast with blue tape, a nod to the Denver Broncos, held his broken arm firmly in place while he stood on the side of the pool watching other kids take acrobatic turns off the diving board. As I looked at him with a mother’s eyes, I found myself wishing there were casts that mended broken hearts as well as broken arms. 

We are less than two weeks away from the start of the 2015-2016 school year here in Denver. All over the city parents are snapping up school supplies while siblings wage frustrated battles with each other in the waning days of summer break. My favorite season is slipping away, and each day closer to school is a heartless reminder of life out of the pool lounger and in the carpool lane. Today, though, I am thinking of that darling little boy with a cast who is probably looking forward to school this year for the first time ever, thinking about friends and structure and the chance to feel again like he belongs.

Our singular experiences comprise our personal tale, but in the end it’s our shared struggles that make our stories worth recounting.

Check This Box

Cutest note ever

Spring is in the air. The songbirds have returned to my bird-feeder welfare state. Tulips are in blooming underneath our spring snow. The flowering trees have kicked my allergies into overdrive. We’re solidly entrenched in the season of new beginnings and hope, which is why I was not at all surprised when the other day my youngest climbed into my car after school smiling quite sheepishly, holding in his hand a folded paper note with a smiley face painted on the outside.

He was whispering rather excitedly to his brother and his brother, in turn, was whispering back. Their hushed conversation was both animated and intense. I had a good idea what was going on based on conversations we’d been having for weeks, but I waited to be included. Finally, Joe’s excitement spilled over.

“Luke got a note from Maddy,” he gushed. Then he added, “It’s depressing.”

“How is it depressing exactly?”

“It just highlights my many failed attempts with girls,” Joe said.

“How many attempts?” I asked. This was all news to me.

“Eight,” he replied instantly with complete assurity.

“Okay. Can we talk about that in a minute? This isn’t about you. It’s about Luke. Let him tell his own story,” I chided. “What’s going on, Luke?”

“Well, after school I found this note in my locker,” he replied, handing me the piece of paper.

It was your garden variety, grade-school note. With carefully chosen words, the author was attempting to ascertain Luke’s level of interest in her. The innocence of the note made me smile. Any note with a “check this box” format wins my heart every time, and this note had two different questions with corresponding boxes. Add to it the charming spelling irregularities of dyslexia and you’ve got about the sweetest correspondence ever. I handed it back to Luke.

“So, how are you going to respond?” I asked

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“I thought you like Maddy,” I replied.

“I do. I’m just nervous. What if I tell her I like her and she doesn’t like me?”

“She wouldn’t have bothered to write the note if she didn’t like you,” I told him. “Girls generally don’t bother with guys they don’t like. We try to avoid them. Trust me.”

“Well, then, I think I will answer yes to the liking her question. But I don’t know what to say about the question of if I have a girlfriend,” he said.

Do you have a girlfriend?” I inquired knowing full well the answer.

“No, but…,” he paused.

“You are afraid to put yourself out there?” I asked.

“Kind of,” he said.

“I can tell you this. If you like her, you shouldn’t play games. Be honest.”

“Okay. I will tell her I don’t have a girlfriend then.”

“Or…or you could make a third box to check that says Not Yet. That would let her know you’re hoping she will be your girlfriend,” I suggested, digging way back into my memories of flirting protocol. “That puts the ball back in her court,” I said, “but still keeps you safe because it’s not a definitive answer.”

“Yes. I like that,” he replied with clear relief that there was a way to respond that didn’t leave him completely vulnerable.

He folded up the note, put it away, and Joe used the opportunity to begin his lamentation about his 12-year-old brother’s third success in dating while he still only had one success, way back in kindergarten, and he’s almost fourteen. It’s hard to be Joe.

I’m grateful that my sons are willing to talk to me about girls, at least thus far. The world of interpersonal relationships is a minefield. I hope to keep the lines of communication open with them as they negotiate their way through it. They know I am an old lady, but they also know I dated plenty before I married their dad. I have shared some of my stories of heartbreak, embarrassment, rejection, and shame so they know I have been there and can commiserate. It will be difficult to stand by during the tragedy of their first broken heart but, for now, I’m enjoying the check-this-box phase of newly sprung love or, in this case, like.

Our Nation of Fools, Zealots, and Unicorns

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” ~Abraham Lincoln

“Never argue with a fool. Onlookers might not be able to tell the difference.” ~Mark Twain

You know what makes me tired? I mean, mother-of-toddler-triplets tired? The non-stop, exhaustive, political and religious divisiveness presented in the daily media. With Hillary Clinton’s long-expected announcement about her second presidential bid, things have become even uglier in my world. It’s not that I’m not interested in politics. I am. Like most Americans, I have plenty of opinions about our government and whether we have become the kind of nation our forefathers envisioned when they drafted our Constitution. Most of these opinions I keep to myself because I’ve learned that bickering with people whose minds are made up is a Sisyphean task. People say they’re capable of open-ended, honest, fair, and cooperative discourse about opposing views, but I’ve seen too many dinner parties turn into shouting matches over who is right and who is stupid to believe it exists. And the more polarized we’ve become as a nation, the less likely it seems that we will ever be able to have friendly discussions about opposing political or religious views. It’s a shame, really.

I have a significant number of family members and friends who never seem to tire of political and religious controversy. In the days before I knew better, I got into “discussions” (yes…that word needs quotation marks) with these people about my views. Some of these people wrote me off. The rest, however, made me their pet cause, which has proven to be worse. These people have since made it their life’s work to enlighten me about how misguided I am in an effort to save my soul. This, too, is exhausting. There aren’t enough free hours in my day to read the emailed articles sent to inform me of my inherent and unacceptable wrongness. So, I don’t read them. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that I had a choice…I could save established relationships with people who disagree with me or I could spend my life defending myself and my views to them while becoming increasingly agitated about my need to do so. So I chose to let go. The emails sent for my edification go straight into my junk folder where they remain unopened in communication limbo. Every once in a while, I hit delete for the whole lot of filtered messages in a ritualistic, spiritual cleansing.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” ~Abraham Lincoln

Some people think that my unwillingness to go into battle over my beliefs is cowardly. While they proudly spout their views in every possible public forum under the guise of free speech, repeating news-generated talking points or quoting pieces from partisan publications, I remain silent. And my silence merely reinforces their opinion that if my beliefs held any merit I could defend them. It’s a nasty cycle. I suppose I could catalog and save statistical evidence to offer while disputing my detractors, but how would that ever be worth the effort when they are so convinced of their moral higher ground that they would find a way to dispel my proof and continue along in their assertion that I am at best misguided and at worst completely wrong? I’m female and, despite having been raised Catholic, I now identify more as atheist than Christian. I’m an anomaly. According to a Pew Research study in 2012, only 2.4% of US citizens identify as atheist. Of that 2.4%, it’s been estimated that only 25% are women. I’m so far out there right now, statistically speaking, that I’m nearly a unicorn. Some don’t believe I even exist.

Because I am different from the majority and do not myself fit in, I work on accepting others where they are because life is hard enough without creating controversy where none is necessary. In 2001, we bonded over a previously unimaginable horror. In those moments after the Twin Towers fell, there were no labels. It didn’t matter if you were Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew, pink or brown. In those moments, we were all simply Americans. While I would never wish for those days back, I do have some nostalgia for the feeling that, as different as we were, we were all in it together. And I wonder sometimes at how in 14 years we’ve slid so far away from the united in the United States of America. Us versus them is now a continual ideological battle being waged within our own borders. It serves the best interests of no one.

So, I won’t debate you if our politics and religious views don’t mesh. I won’t unfriend you on Facebook merely because we don’t agree. But I won’t support this pervasive notion that any one group has cornered the market on morality in this country. There is no one way to be more intrinsically American than another, and no one group deserves a greater say than another. As a young child in the early 70s, I learned that we were free to be you and me. We were all unique, but we all somehow belonged here together in our differences. Maybe that was really idealistic, but I liked that message. I’m not exactly sure when things changed and we became so intolerant of the value of each individual within the confines of our united society, but I’m not buying into this new paradigm. I’m not defending my beliefs. I’m not kowtowing to the majority you create that leaves me on the outside. And I’m not teaching my kids with my actions that they have to explain why their opinion counts. It just does. They’re free to be whatever they want, and they don’t have to fit in to belong. This is America, dammit. And their mother is a frigging unicorn.

Getting Schooled

All geared up for adventure

All geared up for adventure

Our son, Joe, has been counting down the days to his first-ever Outdoor Lab excursion with school. Outdoor Lab is sleep-away science camp for middle schoolers. Students head to the mountains for some outdoor education that involves daytime field work in science-related topics followed by nights spent sleeping in cabins with teachers and classmates. Joe class would be studying “snow science.” For most kids in our county, Outdoor Lab occurs in 6th grade. Joe’s private school sends kids to Keystone Science School during 7th and 8th grades. Joe has had to wait this extra year to attend. He’s heard his friends talk about it since last year and he was dying for his chance to go.

Weeks ago, he started telling me that he was afraid he would get sick and not be able to make the trip. He worked in extra hand washings every day. As his teachers prepared the class for what to expect, what to pack, and what would be expected of them, Joe would come home filled with details and brimming with expectation. Yesterday afternoon he and I pulled out the packing list, found an appropriate duffel bag and backpack, and located a mummy sleeping bag. Then we set about picking out the right clothing and gathering up gear. 1 pair long underwear. 1 pair ski goggles. 1 pair sunglasses. Sunscreen not less than 35 SPF. Lip balm not less than 15 SPF. 2 water bottles. 1 flashlight. 2-3 pairs synthetic or wool…not cotton..socks. Systematically, we crossed each item off the list as we placed it into the duffel bag he would have to carry from the bus drop off point to the cabin. He was adamant that it all must fit into one bag and that it would have to be easy for him to carry. At the end of the night, we had a medium-sized duffel jam packed with every item on the school’s list, a backpack loaded with sun gear appropriate for hiking at 10,000 feet, and a child who was complaining that time was moving too slowly.

I tucked him and his brother in for the night and fell exhausted into my bed. Of course, Joe woke me up three times between midnight and 4 a.m. and only on the third wake up call admitted to being the tiniest bit nervous about sleeping away from home without his family. We chatted a bit about how everything would be fine, about how being nervous was normal the first time away from home, and about how amazing it would be. I told him I would miss him but he’d be home with us soon. He fell back asleep quickly after we spoke. I stayed awake for another hour and a half thinking about him. My little family of four is my entire world. I was struggling as I tried envisioning us as a trio and not a quartet.

When Joe woke me up at 6:35 (ten minutes before my alarm clock would have summoned me and less than an hour after I’d finally fallen back to sleep), he had already showered and dressed and had played on his iPad for an hour. He spent the morning rushing around, talking excitedly, ready to get out the door. I dragged my feet a bit as it sunk in that he was actually leaving. I packed his lunch slowly, drawing out our last bit of time together for three days. I gave him some cashews to try in his lunch. He chewed one, swallowed it, and then began panicking, imagining that he was going to have an allergic reaction to it and not be able to go. I reassured him that if he had a reaction to the nuts (which he wouldn’t because he’s not allergic to tree nuts or anything else for that matter), the teachers would give him a Benadryl and he’d live another day. I started to wonder if his ingenious plan was to drive me insane so I would not miss him.

When we got to school, we saw many of his classmates had already checked in. The drop-off space was filled with all manner of packed items. There were rolling suitcases, sleeping bags packed in square, plastic, comforter bags, and large, garden-sized trash bags filled with supplies. I started to wonder if I was the only one who had obsessed to ensure my son had all the requested gear neatly packed exactly as specified. The principal came over and told me that Joe won the award for Best Packed Bags. I guess that means I am still a prize-winning rule follower.

I gave him a big hug and snapped a quick photo of him weighed down by his perfect bag. He looked so grown up just then, standing there squinting in the morning sun on the east side of the school. I watched him as he walked toward the stairs for class, quietly sending him all the positivity and love in my heart. I held it together as I had promised him and didn’t even tear up until I was exiting the school parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief when the school messaged that the group had arrived safely at Keystone.

I’ve been wrong thinking of this as Joe’s adventure. It’s my adventure too. After thirteen years, Joe is off learning how to be Joe without my help. And I’m here learning that he’s not mine. There’s genius in this Outdoor Lab concept. The kids aren’t the only ones getting an education and important life experience. Looks like Joe and I are both getting schooled this week.