teenagers

It’s In The Stars

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Chamberlin Observatory at night

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.

Ruined Dinners, Reading Assignments, and Raising Adults

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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.

Wouldn’t Take Nothing

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Experiencing the Great Salt Lake

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.

Wax On, Wax Off

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The would-be scene of a grisly murder

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.

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Not blood splatter, but it could have been.

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.

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Slightly less horrific

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.

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We shall live to see another day.

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.

 

 

That Time Whip-Nae-Nae Saved The Day

Nothing stinky here

Nothing stinky here

As our children grow, most of their changes occur imperceptibly. One moment you are gazing into their chubby, little cherub face and the next you are looking directly into the eyes of a slender-faced, high-cheekboned teenager and wondering what wicked sorcery changed them overnight. And while their adult appearance seems to develop in the proverbial eye blink, the transformation in their personalities as they mature from tantrum-tossing toddler into too-cool-for-school teenager seems to take forever. My sons both pitched fits in public places that I swore would last longer than the Cenozoic Era. I watched with grateful glee as the tantrums decreased in duration over the years, evolving from epic, hour-long fuss fests into eye-rolling disgust lasting two seconds from start to finish. It was marked forward progress and it was much easier to notice because it directly impacted the level of peace and quiet in my daily life. Over the years, I have become guardedly optimistic about my sons’ potential to become respectful, open-minded, kind, and decent adult humans because I have witnessed their emotional growth firsthand and been present to overhear other adults as they remarked on it too.

On Halloween evening last weekend, our oldest son did something that proved he is more mature than his meager fourteen years might assert. Right around 6:30 pm, as costumed children began serenading us with Trick-or-Treat calls from our front step, our sons finally decided to get their teenage acts together and get into costume for what Joe proclaimed would be his last year trick-or-treating. For the auspicious occasion, he had chosen a demented, shiny skeleton mask in his first-ever attempt to dress in a costume that could potentially unnerve small children. As he was donning his scary costume, however, there was a wardrobe malfunction with the mask that required last-minute triage with super glue. He put the mask on after the quick-fix solution and discovered the fumes from the not yet dried glue made his eyes water. Not good. We waited a few minutes for the glue to dry and he tried again. Still no go. Everyone else in the trick-or-treating party was ready to hit the road, but Joe’s costume was suddenly out of the question. I immediately apologized for not foreseeing the potential sticky situation in my instant glue fix, but he brushed it off without another thought.

In years past, our ADHD son would likely have in the same situation devolved into a weepy mess and declared the holiday a total loss. He might have thrown himself on his bed and cried in frustration. This year, though, was different. I was the one who was irked and disappointed about the worthless $25 mask that could not be worn. He was calm and collected. Reasoning that he was already dressed in full black, he decided he could easily transition his costume from scary death apparition to scary mime with some white face paint. (Mimes are a freakishly scary Halloween costume, you have to admit.) I dug around in the costume bucket only to discover there was no viable white makeup to use for his transformation. Dammit. Joe and I started brainstorming. I ran to the basement to my containers of old Halloween costumes and searched for something he could use in a pinch. The least feminine item I was able to turn up was a headband for a skunk costume. I brought it to him.

“What about this?” I asked, adding, “I also have a black cat headband, but the ears have a glittery, bright pink in them.”

“I can be a skunk,” he announced confidently and without the slightest hint of teenage embarrassment or disappointment.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “I can probably figure out something better if you give me a few more minutes to dig around,” I explained.

“Nope. The skunk is good. I can be a skunk.”

We found some white felt fabric in my office and safety pinned a stripe down the back of his otherwise all black outfit. I pulled out a black eyeliner pencil and drew a skunk nose and whiskers on his face. He put on the headband and checked the mirror.

“I look a little bit like a girl,” he assessed, “but I don’t care. I’m not missing trick-or-treating. Luke and Anthony might make fun of me, but I can deal with it. I’ll just tell everyone I’m doing the stanky leg,” he said, giving a nod to Silento’s Watch Me song.

(Thanks to Joe, I spent the entire evening with the watch-me-whip-watch-me-nae-nae chorus running through my head. And now it is probably in yours. You’re welcome.)

I handed him a flannel pillowcase and he was off, taking on the mantle of leader of the pack with confident aplomb. We’ve spent years working with Joe, both explaining and demonstrating ways to transform lemons into lemonade and chicken shit into chicken salad when things did not go his way. While Luke has always been capable of adjusting quickly when things went awry, Joe has struggled for years, full of sulks and things-always-go-wrong-for-me woe and hours of perseveration. Each meltdown has brought with it an opportunity for growth, and we’ve watched it occur slowly. But this time was markedly different. This time there was zero meltdown. This time he pulled a page out of my fix-it-on-the-fly handbook and adapted to the unfortunate change in plan without a second thought. I’m not sure I have ever felt prouder than I did as I witnessed his determination to jump over this pothole on the greatest of all kid holidays. He did at fourteen something I was not able to accomplish until my mid forties. He made a conscious choice not to take himself so damned seriously. And he rocked it.

As for me, I am going to follow Joe’s example and continue to work at not taking myself quite as seriously. Also, I will never again hear that ridiculous Watch Me song without thinking about the way inspiration and strength can come from the oddest things…like the stanky leg.