My oldest had his wisdom teeth out a couple days ago. He’s been fortunate, and it’s been mostly not a big deal for him. He’s had no bruising, very minimal swelling, and pain that is manageable with over-the-counter relief. Last night, however, he didn’t sleep well. So he awoke at 5:30 a.m. to take some more Advil and when they kicked in he fell back asleep. Great, right? Wrong. He had a coffee date planned for 9:30 this morning. I didn’t know this, but somehow wandered down to his room at that time to check on how he was feeling.
He was pretty out of it as he awoke. He looked at the clock on his phone for a long five or six seconds while it registered in his brain.
“Shit!” he exclaimed as he moved the blanket back and slowly sat up. “I was supposed to meet Ella.”
“When?” I inquired.
“Right about now,” he said.
He’s never been late to pick up his girlfriend. Since he started dating last spring, I’ve learned a great deal about my son and how he conducts himself in matters of the heart. He is considerate, continually thinking of what she might like and dreaming up creative ways to show he cares. He is flexible, willing to rework plans to make the most of their time together. And, he is timely. Usually.
“Text her and tell her you overslept because of your mouth. Tell her you’ll be there in a half an hour. Grab a quick shower. You’ve got this,” I told him.
I knew he was worried. He doesn’t like to be late. Once when he was three, in an absent-minded parental state of exhaustion, I got on the highway to take him to school. Problem was the highway was in the opposite direction of school. He noticed immediately and told me I was going the wrong way. He began to panic, fearful that he would be late, that his teacher would be upset with him, that he had ruined his perfect attendance record. I spent the fifteen minutes rerouting to get him to school apologizing, explaining there are dozens of different ways to arrive at the same location and assuring him it would be fine. When we walked into school, he ran to his classroom. I heard him loudly tell the teacher, “I’m late because my mom went the wrong way. ” Subtle.
At 9:45 I heard the door to the garage open, so I went to say goodbye. He was showered and ready to go, but I noticed his thick hair was uncombed and unruly.
“You didn’t fix your hair,” I noted.
“No time,” he said.
“Nuh uh,” I replied. “You have twenty seconds to fix yourself. Stay right there.”
I dashed off to get the hair cream and reappeared in seconds to help him tame his mop. At the time, it occurred to me maybe I was overstepping my bounds, being too motherly to someone who is no longer a kid but an eighteen year old with a car and a girlfriend. Then I shoved that thought right aside because sometimes it’s good to have someone around to help you out in a rush. Everyone benefits from a little help sometimes, and it’s good to understand that. The devil is in the details. That is the kind of thing I want him to remember as he crosses this bridge from youth into adulthood.
“If you’re going to make a girl wait for you, it’s good to make sure you’re worth waiting for,” I told him as he got into the car.
Many times as a much younger woman I sat waiting for a guy who was late. Many times said guy showed up just as he was, not the least bit concerned about his disheveled appearance or apologetic about his tardiness. The boys who weren’t like that are the ones who stand out to me now. The ones who took a minute to throw on an attractive sweater rather than the crappy, acid-wash denim jacket they wore to school. The ones who bothered to put on a cologne they knew I loved. The ones who showed up with a flower they’d grabbed at a gas station convenience store. Those guys were the ones who made me feel special, the ones who were worth waiting for. I like to think my son will be one of those someday, even if he needs some guidance to get there.
I saw the above passage in my Facebook feed yesterday and promptly copied and saved it because I love it when other people write my feelings succinctly and turn it into an inspirational post so I don’t have to.
Before having children, I heard myriad dark tales of the harrowing experience of raising teenagers. Having eons ago been a teenager myself, I recalled the endless battles with parents, the scramble to balance friends and boyfriends and homework and extracurriculars and part-time work and social activities, and the confusion surrounding figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do in life. I remember that time as exhausting and exhilarating, a period of self-development precariously balanced with self-loathing.
When my sons, now 18 and 16, were toddlers, I could not wait for them to get older. I longed for a time when I could understand what they wanted and discover who they were. And, through the infinite magic of time that speeds up as we age, I arrived here more quickly than I ever imagined.
While my parents struggled with their teenagers, I’ve found mine to be 10% terror-inducing and 90% delightful. Letting my son drive off at 6 am with his brand-spanking new driver’s license to head to the mountains for a hike, well…that’s terror-inducing. But waking up the next day, pulling up Google Translate on my iPhone to start brushing up on my French for an upcoming trip and finding my sons have been doing the same, well…that’s delightful.
My sons have brought out both the best and the worst in me over the years since they arrived and made us a family. Fortunately, as I have aged, I have relaxed a bit, which has made experiencing my sons’ teenage years more filled with laughter than fraught with frustration. If you get out of your kids what you put into them, I must have given my all.
“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” ~Elizabeth Stone
Right now, if the above saying is true, my heart is walking around India. On Saturday, we drove our oldest to the airport at 7:30 a.m. so he could board a flight to Asia with fifteen classmates and three of their high school teachers. We had spent the better part of two weeks making sure he was geared up for this trip, both mentally, physically, and personally. We bought him the requisite power adapter and made sure he had adequate, quick drying clothing along with several sticks of deodorant we knew he would need in the 100 degree summer-in-India weather. Oddly, both my husband and I were calm and collected as we said our goodbyes to Joe and left him at the airport to embark on a 24-hour travel day, including a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, without us. There were no tears or histrionics, not even in the car on the ride home. I’m not sure how we pulled it off.
The decision to let your child travel without you is a leap of faith. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, we began with training wheels. First, we sent Joe to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do some service work for five days during his freshman year. Last summer, we left him for a week at summer camp at the foot of Long’s Peak. This past March, Joe went to Grand Cayman to earn his scuba certification. Each time we let him go, he returned a little braver, stronger, and more self-possessed. Each time he left, we grew a little more resigned to the reality that he really is growing up.
Each time Joe has gone away, he has done so without a phone. For the trip to India, we were given the option to get him a cellular plan or let him take his iPad and use hotel Wifi to reach out when he could. For us, it was a no brainer. We weren’t sending him halfway around the world so he could ride in a van creating bunny-eared Snapchat photos as India teemed with life around him. He was traveling with responsible people who would be updating us and who had cell phones. He didn’t need his. He would experience more without it.
It never occurred to me that not letting him take his phone might seem foolish. It wasn’t until I was met with incredulity from other parents regarding my son’s phone-less status that it even crossed my mind that our actions might be beyond the pale. How could I let my son go halfway around the world without a way for me to check in on him? What if he needed me and was unable to get a Wifi signal? What if there was an emergency? I don’t let my son walk 1.5 miles to Target without his cell phone. What the hell was I thinking sending him to ASIA without one? I questioned my sanity.
Then while talking to another mom with a child on the trip, she showed me the app she uses to track her son’s whereabouts. She showed me exactly where our kids were at that moment, in their hotel, near a hospital in Mumbai. That was when I remembered why we sent him without a phone. As uncomfortable as it may be for a mother’s heart, this is Joe’s experience. He deserves the room to have it his own way without constant input and monitoring. If something comes up, he can be trusted to to figure it out. What he needs is the freedom to experience India and Sri Lanka without my two-cents.
Right now, it’s 1:35 a.m. in Mumbai, and my second heart is probably sleeping, exhausted after a day touring the slums of Dharavi and viewing that world through its first-world, teenage boy filter. My second heart, the one I grew over nine months and delivered into the world seventeen years ago, is having an 18-day adventure in life in southern Asia. It’s feeling and stretching and evolving. It’s not simply going through the motions and it’s not staring at its phone. It’s living in the moment unencumbered by its usual reality. That is worth a little sacrifice and emotional malaise on my part, being out of instant touch with my boy, one of my favorite people on this planet.
I won’t feel whole again until my heart is back with me. When it gets here, though, it’s going to be fuller than it has ever been. And the experience it has had will be a gift to me, not only because Joe will have grown in ways he never could have without this solo journey but because this time apart has given me an appreciation for what an open, curious, resilient person we’ve raised. He’s a rockstar, far braver than I was when I was his age.
Someday maybe Joe will give life to his own second heart and let it wander the world, adventuring without him, and he too will stretch and grow in ways he never imagined possible when he had only one heart.
It’s Valentine’s Day, the one day of the year when expectations of all ilks band together to form a super group of disappointment. You might recognize some of their greatest Country hits.
How Could You Not Know
Lingerie…the Gift for You That’s Really For Me
Ended up at Chili’s in my Best Dress and Pearls
Don’t Give Me Chocolate and Complain that I’m Fat
I Paid For Lobster and Got Cold Fish
My Dog Loves Me More Than You Do
Stalled in the Friend Zone
Valentine’s Day Threesome – Me, Myself, and I
Sleeping on the Sofa Again
Traditionally, this has not been my favorite holiday because I’ve never been great with expectations. Based on something that happened last night with my son, however, I have evidence my attitude may be changing.
Him: “If I wanted to buy some flowers, what would be the best way to do that?”
Me: *silently processing* Flowers? What for? Oh shit. It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. OMG. This may be the cutest thing he’s ever said. *squeal* Act cool. Don’t let on that he’s being adorable. And, for holy lizard’s sake, don’t be patronizing. Whatever you do, do not ask who they are for. Crap. Where will we find roses in the morning before school and how early will we have to get to the store? Maybe we should go tonight. Oh man. I don’t want to drive all over town tonight. If we go quickly, maybe I can still catch the men’s half-pipe finals.
“We could hit Whole Foods after dinner if that sounds good,” I replied with my best game face, as if it were barely an issue. “Whole Foods usually has nice flowers.”
“Okay,” he said.
We geared up and drove the five minutes to the store and, being Mom and being something of an expert on expectations, I prepared him for multiple scenarios surrounding the endeavor. There could be no flowers left. There could be a million flower choices. The store might be inordinately busy. The flowers might be more expensive than he was thinking. We might have to go to a few different places. He might have to change his game plan.
He seemed not at all fazed by the prospects. He shared that some of his friends said he was crazy. Some expressed concern he would get hurt. Some said nothing because they had done something similar last year and were reserving judgment. I told him that if he was being honest about his intentions, there was no way to lose. If you act from a place of thoughtfulness without return expectation, you can’t go wrong. Giving should make you feel good, no matter where it leads. The act of giving selflessly is actually a gift for you too.
He was in luck. Whole Foods had dozens of buckets of roses. He had (quite charmingly) done his research about the meanings of rose colors and had decided against yellow. He and the recipient were already friends, so friendship roses seemed to express the obvious. He further knew that red roses were way beyond what would be proportionate to his feelings. He decided on light pink roses so she would know he admired and appreciated her. We inspected the pink rose bouquets to select the optimal bunch. I helped him pick out a small, blank card in which he would later write “Happy Valentine’s Day from your friend” to make sure she knew he simply wanted to do something nice to make her day more special. When we got home, he selected four flowers from the assortment and we put them into a vase.
This morning he was nervous, not about the gift but about the managing of the gift. Where would he put the flowers until they saw each other? How much shade would his classmates give him? How awkward was his morning going to be? What had he gotten himself into? He had no idea what to expect. I told him that was a fair place to be and wished him godspeed.
I have spent most of my life sweating the constant, crushing, considerable heft of expectations. I was raised under them and unconsciously came to regard them as a weighted blanket, a comfortable and secure place from which to operate. Only recently have I examined them more closely and accepted their truths. Expecting too much from others or yourself only causes trouble. Expecting too little from yourself or others leaves your self-esteem vulnerable. Somewhere in the middle of that see saw, around the center at the pivot point, is the best place from which to ride life’s waves. I think I will find that sweet spot eventually. For now, I am enjoying the remainder of those pink roses we purchased last night, admiring and appreciating myself for getting closer to where I hope to be.
Joe decided after his successful foray into track last spring that he would go out for cross-country this fall. A couple times during the summer, he received emails from his coaches encouraging training plans and providing workout schedules, emails which he deleted because denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Once August hit after an entire summer of remaining exercise free, I suggested he do a few weeks of a Couch to 5K training app to dip his toes into the water again. Being a teenager dripping with disdain for anything requiring effort, he had less than zero interest in or enthusiasm for such an endeavor.
If there’s anything anyone who truly knows me knows about me, it’s that I don’t run. I think you should only run when you’re being chased by something bigger and heavier than you, like a large carnivore with sharp teeth or a runaway grand piano. While I have participated in a plethora of 5k events because I enjoy doing fun activities with people I like, I have not finished even one race where I ran the entire course because, as I mentioned, I don’t run. I. Don’t. Run. If you know anything else about me, though, it’s that I am doggedly determined once I set a goal. And this goal was to get Joe on his feet again.
To that end, being the super annoying mother I am, I downloaded the Couch to 5k app to my phone, waltzed into his room at 8 a.m. one oddly cool morning, tossed some socks and his running shoes onto his chest, and told him we would be leaving in 10 minutes. That was two weeks ago. I have been running with him every other day since then because it turns out I love complaining about running while running with Joe more than not running.
Today we were finishing up the last minute of our brisk-walk warm up when I noticed an elderly couple traveling side-by-side on the narrow path in front of us. He was moving along unsteadily with the aid of a cane while she held a walking stick in each hand to assist her. It was a bittersweet scene, at once a charming vision of long-term commitment to a life partner and yet a heartbreaking exhibition of the difficulty of aging. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it.
The gentleman heard us approaching, turned to verify our presence, and slowly moved behind his wife to allow us room to pass. Billie (our annoying, imaginary running coach) barked from my phone that it was time to jog. Joe sprinted off with his long, sixteen-year-old legs. I plodded along behind him and offered a polite greeting as I prepared to pass the couple. The gentleman replied in kind.
Then as I hit my stride next to them and began to leave them behind the way Joe had left me, she sighed and spoke.
“To be that young. Oh, to run again.”
That hurt. I mentally clutched my heart with my hands.
We spend a lot of time bitching about what we must do. Our monkey minds run a non-stop chyron of obligations through our heads, preemptively sucking the joy out of doing. I’ve spent considerable time the last two weeks bitching about running, mainly while running. It didn’t make the running any easier.
Life is not about what you have to do. It’s about what you can do, even if you haven’t found your way to enjoying it yet.
Our oldest son, a high school freshman, joined the track team last month. For most people, having their child participate in an extra-curricular sport is no big deal. But our kids, while not being completely unusual (well, except for Joe’s inexplicable obsession with K-pop), have struggled with sports. We provided and paid plenty for opportunities in activities like swimming, baseball, soccer, and golf, but nothing has stuck. I decided to accept that they were geeks, and sports were not their passion.
As winter gave way to spring this year, Joe expressed an interest in joining either baseball or track. We had been trying since the fall to steer Joe toward running for two reasons. First, he has these crazy long legs (he’s five inches shorter than his father right now but has the same inseam). Second, baseball requires mad hand-eye coordination while running requires, well, legs. We felt track would be a much better fit as a first sport for him, but no kid wants to be told what to do by his lame parents so he had been resistant. When he told me he was set on baseball, I gently reminded him that track is a co-ed sport where the uniforms are tank tops and short shorts. Ding. Ding. Ding. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! We were suddenly track parents.
I had no idea what that entailed, honestly. If I had known that track was going to require Saturday morning alarms set for 6 a.m. and meets in distant towns that ran from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in unpredictable and often downright cold spring weather, I might have given baseball a second thought. Still, a couple weeks ago we headed out for his first track meet and got to be spectators as our child participated in something.
Joe is our little inchworm. With his ADHD and his sensory issues and learning disabilities, he’s been a bit behind the pack from the beginning. His growth and development in most areas has been slow, steadily moving an inch at a time while other kids leapt forward in great strides. Joe approached the meet with the laissez-faire attitude and lack of competitive spirit he’s always shown knowing himself to be that inchworm. He ran his three events and finished last in each heat. We decided to count our blessings as they were. He was attending daily practices, taking responsibility for his uniform and gear, talking to different students, and committing to weekend events that encroached on his precious free time. Those are impressive feats for a teenager whose typical weekend events include marathon texting sessions, non-stop You Tube video viewing, and competitive carbohydrate consumption.
Toward the end of the meet, a fellow teammate backed out of the Men’s 200 Meter. The coach dropped Joe into the event in his stead. We had planned on cutting out a bit early, but bellied up to the fence to witness his last race. The starting gun popped and he was off. It looked like we were headed for another participation-ribbon run but, as he rounded the last turn, something clicked. Maybe he was tired of finishing last. Maybe he just wanted to be done more quickly. But, for whatever reason, he turned it on. We watched and cheered as he passed two other runners to finish 6th out of 8. It might not seem like much, but to me it was everything. I was teary eyed. He blew me away. I could not have been more proud if he had placed first in the fastest heat against the best runners at the event. It didn’t matter. He had progressed before my eyes, and it was beautiful.
After that race, I caught up with him. He was tired, but I had to ask. What was behind the change in that last 100 meters in his last race at the end of a long day? What was up with the afterburners? He told me he just decided to push himself and see what happened. He had his answer. His swagger had increased tenfold. He had found his motivation. Running with people is fun. Passing people every once in a while while doing it is more fun.
Since that first meet, Joe has made continual improvements. His coaches have him working on his stride and pacing. He’s learning to use his upper body to add momentum. He’s using the starting blocks to his best advantage. He’s finished heats in second place, not eighth, and he’s done well enough to advance to more difficult heats where he is now finishing in the middle of the pack. My kid, who a few weeks ago told me he would finish out the season but didn’t think this was his thing, told me yesterday that he may do track and cross-country next year. I smiled inside but didn’t let on because, well, I wasn’t born yesterday and am not stupid.
Full disclosure. There have been times in Joe’s almost sixteen years when I wished he would hurry up and reach his stride. When would our inchworm start moving a little more quickly? I reasoned that at some point he would have to go at breakneck speed to catch up. Well, he’s running now, but he’s still an inchworm. He’s making incremental gains in his own time on his own schedule because an inchworm moves the only way he can, the way he does it best, slowly. He’ll never be a jackrabbit or a cheetah. It’s not his deal. I’ll never be able to speed Joe up to reach the milestones I had met by his age. It’s not happening. Instead, he’s teaching me to slow down, to be patient, and to trust that everything will work out as it should. I believe the world gives you what you need. I’ve spent most of my life running around without purpose in large circles and getting nowhere. It took an inchworm who runs track to show me how to gain ground with intention.
Our oldest son chose for his elective this past quarter an astronomy class. Faced with the athletic, artistic, or intellectual, he will nearly always choose the intellectual. I was thrilled when he told me his choice because I too am fascinated by space. As an English major at the University of Colorado, while most of my friends chose Geology for their science requirement, I elected to take three semesters of astronomy…two towards my credit requirement and an extra, upper level course (pass-fail, mind you, because math is not my strong suit) for my own intellectual curiosity.
Joe, being Joe, has spent the entire quarter memorizing facts and statistics about the planets and their moons. Because astronomy is his last class of the day, he often spends our drive home burying me in astronomical facts about the size of planets and the death of stars. Yesterday, though, on our way home he casually mentioned that there was a field trip to the observatory that he might attend because, well, he hadn’t been keeping up on his nightly sky observations and, well, he could get credit in place of the work he hadn’t completed if he spent two hours at the observatory Thursday night.
He told me he wanted to use the large telescope, but he also admitted that he would really rather stay home and binge watch Netflix. I told him it was his choice. It’s his grade and his transcript, after all, and we made the decision to let him be in charge of his fate starting with his freshman year. He’s 15 and we’re not going to babysit him and his school responsibilities. I don’t check the online grade book. I don’t know when his assignments are due. We are not choosing his college for him if he decides to attend college. And I will not be one of those parents calling his professors to ask them for assignment extensions for my son.
Tonight at dinner he seemed committed to going and asked if we would drive him to Observatory Park. On the way there, though, he began lamenting that he hadn’t finished his homework earlier in the week and put himself in the predicament of having to give up two hours of free time on a school night for more school-related work. It was mostly cloudy, light flurries falling on and off all evening, so there might not be much to see, which meant two hours sitting in the observatory listening to lectures without having the occasion to use the telescope at all. The homework assignment didn’t even count for that much. There were myriad reasons not to go. He was counting them off.
We arrived a bit early and sat in the idling car while we waited to see what he would do. As a couple cars opened their doors and spilled their student contents onto the sidewalk, we suggested that he could hop out and catch up with his classmates if he didn’t want to go in alone. He paused for a while, deliberating. Finally, the car door opened and from the back seat we heard, “I really don’t want to do this, but I need the credit.” And with that, he stepped out, closed the door behind him, and walked away, only looking back towards us once before disappearing into the dark park along with the other teenagers.
Parenting is hard. You want your child become successful. You think you might know the best way to make that happen for them. The truth is that the most important thing you can do is let them make their own choices and mistakes, while you sit quietly with your fingers crossed hoping you gave them the right tools for the task. Tonight as Joe loped towards the observatory, I felt fairly confident about his chances of becoming a successful adult. He’s figured out the toughest part about it already: sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do even when you really don’t want to do it. I might be speaking too soon, but I suspect he’s going to make a fine adult. It seems to be in his stars.
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.
Back to school has changed me. When my sons were younger and full of ill-advised helpings of sugary treats with food coloring, I could not wait for the school year to start. Sure it would mean I’d have to wake up early, cart them across town in my SUV school bus, and go through the dreaded rigamarole of homework, but the house would be quiet all day. I would have time to myself again. I’d be getting my life back, jumpstarting my summer-neglected workouts and my writing, and revisiting my peaceful hours in SuperTarget wandering the aisles of things I didn’t really need but felt helplessly attracted to all the same. Lately, though, my mood about back to school has gone from Yippee to Oh crap.
I was perusing my news feed this morning and found myself buried in a wave of photos of moms jumping for joy (quite literally in some cases) at the prospect of divesting themselves from their offspring for six hours each day. I was that mom once, gleefully depositing my children at school before heading for the hills for the first transcendent hike of fall, feeling liberated at the prospect of rediscovering the me I had left behind when school let out in spring. So while I scrolled through the endless display of children in first-day-of-school photos this morning, I remembered all too well that joy of potential freedom. I just didn’t identify in quite the same way.
My sons start 7th and 9th grade next week. And, as enticing as the notions of getting our house and my life back on track are, I feel like the mom dreading dropping her child off at full-day kindergarten for the first time and acknowledging the impending loneliness. My buddies are leaving me. It’s an end-of-days feeling. I spent my summer staring wide eyed at my sons, floored by their minute-by-minute growth both in height and in maturity. They are the same kids who once left me for kindergarten, but they are so much more now. They are their own people. They are no longer mine. And it sucks. Well, it’s great and amazing and incredible and awesome and it still somehow sucks. Life is weird that way.
When I decided fifteen years ago to quit working my paying job and focus my plethora of natural energy on my infant son, I didn’t give much thought to where it would lead me. I only knew that I had a newborn who seemed hell bent on never sleeping or napping or giving up colic who would probably drive me to an early grave if I attempted to maintain a career and figure out his sleep schedule if he even had one. He didn’t. I had no idea where this journey would take me. Today, though, as I sit here contemplating back to school with a middle schooler and a high schooler, my chosen path makes sense. All the sleepless nights, endless testing, and struggles to figure out how to help them, all the missteps, flubs, and pitfalls of parenting, all the little milestones, the small steps forward, and the minuscule personal triumphs, they were all worth whatever sacrifice I made in savings, earnings potential, and career advancement. I’ve got the tears of gratitude to prove it.
How lucky am I to have had this experience, to have been able to stay with them, suffer alongside them, search for solutions with them, and monitor their progress? To have been able to catch them in the first few minutes after their school day and see their disappointments and triumphs before they faded? And how fortunate am I that I have had them for 13 and 15 years and been able to witness their transition into actual human people when some parents are tragically robbed of that opportunity? I have no idea what path I will take if I get to see Joe graduate from high school in four years. No clue what career I might find or how I might re-enter the workforce after a 20-year hiatus. No sense of who I might yet become. All I know today is that I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. I don’t just love my children. I actually like them, even when they are acting like little creeps with skills I am positive they honed while watching me not have my best moments. I’m going to miss them in the coming weeks when I am once again wandering aimlessly through SuperTarget in a dress rehearsal for my life without them. Still, I wouldn’t take nothing.
Parenting is sticky business. There are days when I am acutely aware that I may not be cut out for this gig. Those are the days when I blow my parental gasket and slam doors and caterwaul with unbridled enthusiasm at my children over socks left on the floor right next to the laundry bin or half-empty cartons of yogurt stuffed behind a couch cushion. Those are the days when I am the very definition of insanity, once again doing the same thing that has failed before to achieve the desired result. Then there are the days when, through the grace of some unforeseen divine intervention, I pull it together long enough to do something that is nearly the right thing in the right situation. Like, for example, on the day when my fourteen-year-old son came to me fresh off watching a PG-13 comedy video on You Tube where he learned a new word, a word describing a sexual act that makes many grown adults shudder (or tilt their heads not unlike a cocker spaniel after hearing a word unfamiliar to their floppy ears). On that day I managed to swallow my shock long enough to offer a generic explanation of said act hoping to delay for him what would be an eye-opening if not wholly disturbing Google search on the NC-17 subject matter. On the days like that one, when I manage to keep my wits about me, I celebrate the alignment of the stars and enjoy it because I know moments of parenting clarity have, in the past, been few and far between, and my next ill-conceived, epic, parental meltdown could be right around the corner if I get too cocky.
A couple of days ago, my youngest son presented me with an opportunity to rise to the occasion again. After doing some more unboxing and cleaning in the basement family room the boys have designated The Teen Zone, I turned on one of those flameless, scented candle warmers to try to defunkify the place in their absence. (Teenage boys are smelly.) Not long after they had returned from a friend’s house, a panicked cry emanated from their space. Through a pained whimper I managed to make out phrases like “this is bad” and “oh no.” You know those moments when you think your child might be bleeding profusely and there is a fear of what you might find when you come face-to-face with them? That’s where my brain was. My son was about to present me with a mostly severed appendage or a head wound so deep I would be viewing his bony skull. When he made it to me, though, I could see no visible signs of trauma. Simultaneously relieved that he was okay and terrified at what that meant with regard to his cries, I asked him what was going on. The words came through breathless cries…spill, wax, accident, sorry, mistake, carpet, bad.
Now, this house is new to us and we have been working to make it our comfortable home for months. And, to that end, we had the worn basement carpet torn out in mid-January and replaced with fresh, super plush carpeting that is a bit like walking on heaven when your stocking feet touch it. As Luke and I hit the threshold of the family room, I could see why he was panic-stricken. Directly in front of the bookshelf where the candle warmer sat, still glowing innocently and without any sign of guilt or remorse, there was a sizable splattering of eggplant-colored, cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented wax. A flurry of words escaped my mouth, most of which were interrogatives and none of which (surprisingly enough) were screamed, but I never listened for the answers because I knew none of them would help. I knew I needed a minute to get my mind in order before I said or did something I would regret. I turned and walked up the stairs, Luke trailing on my heels. He kept talking and explaining while my mind reeled and I muttered my disappointment quietly. I got to the door of my room.
“You stay out here. I need to be alone for a minute,” I told him as I began to close the bedroom door behind me. “Don’t touch the wax. It will only make it worse,” I added as an afterthought as the door clicked solidly shut.
I paced for a minute trying to get my bearings. I whipped off a quick text to a good friend to get my feelings off my chest silently. Luke just spilled purple candle wax on a big spot of our basement carpet. Huge stain. Heartbroken. I took a deep breath. The one thing I knew for sure was that the mess would set with time, and I didn’t have the luxury of a full-scale devolution into parental disgust. Through the door, I could hear Luke talking to himself under his breath. I knew it was an accident. I knew he was simultaneously horrified, frightened, and wondering if the $100 he had earned at the craft fair would get him very far in his soon-to-be life as a hobo. I stood for a moment registering his feelings. Suddenly, I wasn’t an angry parent freaking out about a stain on recently installed carpeting. I was in Luke’s soul, scared and sad and feeling worthless. How many times had I been in his shoes, wondering what punishment would be meted out after my colossal error in judgment? My heart ached for him. I opened the door.
“Come on, Luke. Let’s see what we can do.”
A text came through from Heather. Try ironing it out? Put a rag or old t-shirt down and then iron over that. Medium heat. Then try rubbing alcohol to get the color out.
It sounded like a plausible solution. A quick Google search yielded the same advice. Luke, desperate to make amends, asked how he could help. I had him fetch items for me while I labored to free the new carpet of its unwelcome waxy coating. As I worked, I talked to Luke and reminded him that we all do things like this. Accidents happen. Most of them matter very little. I could see him begin to relax, his hobo life fading into the background for the time being. Little by little, after some icing, scraping, ironing, and blotting, the wax seemed to be coming out. I began to exhale too. This might be fixable after all. After about thirty minutes of triage, the carpet looked only slightly stained. I was hoping that some form of chemical solution could ameliorate that condition. Sure enough. An hour after the tragic incident, the carpet looked nearly uniform or at least good enough that someone might not even notice if they weren’t directed to search for a stain in that area. The carpet, Luke, and I had all survived, only slightly worse for the wear.
In the past, I’ve been too quick to anger in situations that warranted no anger at all. I’ve cried over spilled milk. I’ve fussed over holes in new jeans. And I’ve had full-fledged tantrums over doors left open while the heat was on inside. But as time with my sons living under our roof dwindles, I’ve become more aware of how big my “little” meltdowns can feel to my sons and how little even the “big” things in life are in the grand scheme. If our carpet had been permanently stained, would that have sucked? Absolutely. But I’ve been thinking about how much worse things would be in my life if I had created a situation in which my son no longer felt comfortable coming to me when things went wrong. I know I was that kid…the one who was afraid to be honest about accidents and mistakes. The one who would rather hide things and lie to escape censure. The one who spent far too long avoiding challenges, afraid to make a move lest it make me appear foolish or, heaven forbid, human. As an adult, I continue to work to overcome these fears and embrace my humanity. I’m not sure what grace intervened Sunday when Luke came to me, but all week long I have been hearing the phrase “wax on, wax off” from The Karate Kid in my head. Mr. Miyagi has been speaking to me, reminding me that patience, presence of mind, and repetition are the keys to success. My ability to go more slowly, tread more lightly, and think more carefully in difficult situations with our sons is improving. I have hope that these skills will someday transfer to other situations in my life as well. I’m not quite skillful or patient enough to catch a fly with chopsticks yet, but I’m feeling a bit more Miyagish with each small parental success.