growing up

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.

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.

Halloween Ain’t Over Until I Have Burns From A Hot Glue Gun

The year he wanted to be a Lego.

The year he was a Lego

It is a story as old as time. On September 20th, Mom asks sons what they want to be for Halloween. Sons shrug. On October 1st, Mom asks once again what they want to be for Halloween. Oldest son replies with a vague, “something scary.” Younger son shrugs. On October 15th, Mom tells sons the shipping deadline for their dream costume is rapidly approaching and asks if they want to look online with her for costumes. Nope. On October 24th, Mom urges sons to get it figured out or risk spending Halloween handing out candy to other children. Oldest son says he will be “something scary” but he still doesn’t know what. Youngest son says he’s working on an idea. On October 26th, five days before Halloween and one day before the school Halloween party, youngest son announces in the car on the way to school that he would like to be his favorite Pokemon character, Mudkip.

“I’m not sure where we are getting you a Mudkip costume at this late date,” Mom says.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’ve got it all figured out,” says ridiculously imaginative youngest son. “I know exactly what we need to make it. It won’t cost much. I just need a blue sweatshirt with hood, blue sweatpants, and some fabric, probably grey, orange, black, and white.”

The year he was Pacman.

The year he was Pacman

“Uh huh,” Mom replies warily. “You know I don’t have time to shop for all that stuff today. I have plans.”

“We can get the stuff after school. I will pick out everything I need. I will make it,” says I-am-too-cute-to-say-no-to youngest son.

“Uh huh,” sighs frustrated Mom who now knows how she will be spending her entire Monday evening.

So I resigned myself to my fate. I spent my day painting the family room at the new house before heading to pick the boys up at 4. As soon as they were in the car, we drove over to Hobby Lobby for costume supplies, except we weren’t entirely sure if we would find what we needed.

Luckily for Luke and I, we’re great in clutch situations. We were gifted with the ability to pull something from nothing. We go in with a Plan A, but when Plan A falls apart we quickly devise a Plan B. When that doesn’t work, we run our way through the alphabet. I’m not sure we’ve ever had to go beyond Plan D to find a solution to the problem at hand. When we couldn’t find the right color blue hoodie (and I quickly ascertained that finding one at this point would require multiple trips to various stores across town that we had neither time nor gas for), I got Luke to settle for a blue t-shirt in exactly the right shade. From there we figured out how to create a suitable headpiece for the costume, and Luke agreed to forgo matching bottoms to make the costume a bit more age appropriate. I mean, what kid at age twelve wants to be wearing the equivalent of the pink bunny suit from A Christmas Story to school?

When we got home, I fished out the hot glue gun, my sewing kit, some polyester fiberfill fluff, and got to work. Luke was costume designer. I was seamstress. He wanted to do more hands on work but I relegated him to cutting because, honestly, that hot glue gun is a nasty bitch. I couldn’t see how landing my son in the emergency room with burns was going to expedite our costume creation. We dumped out the supplies and took turns devising schemes to turn our meager $14 in supplies into an adorable costume. We cut and recut shapes for the eyes and nostrils until they looked right. Luke stuffed some of the pieces to adequate fill, and I glued and sewed until we ended up with something Luke could live with. It wasn’t exactly what he had pictured, but he accepted that it was his lack of expedience that led to this backup version of his whimsical plan.

The year he was Mudkip.

The year he was Mudkip

As I was busy using my fifth-rate sewing skills to attach the tail to Luke’s costume, I thought about why I end up in this predicament year after year with this kid, slaving away on a costume that will be tossed out once the pillowcase comes home heavy with candy. It’s partially because he’s my youngest and he’s growing up too quickly. It’s partially because his ingenuity and enthusiasm are contagious. It’s partially because I enjoy seeing how close I can come to executing his perfect costume. But it’s mostly because I don’t want to be the kind of mother who isn’t willing to give herself second-degree burns (yes…I earned a blister) with a hot glue gun the night before her son’s Halloween party at school. It’s my way of letting my sons know there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them, including pouring my blood, sweat, and tears out for them when they need me the most.

I think a lot these days about the legacy I will leave with my sons. If I’m gone suddenly tomorrow, what will they remember? What will they miss? Will they recall that I made up crazy dances to sitcom theme songs or that I fashioned a makeshift triage in my office for their injured stuffed animals? Will they look back fondly at the times when together we coaxed something from nothing in the clutch? No matter what they will recollect someday, I live at peace today in the knowledge that I gave this motherhood bag my all. I never backed away, even on the worst days when my car sang the sirens’ song of the open road. I left it all in the ring and I have no regrets about the time I invested in my children and their dreams while putting my own on hold. It’s just too damn bad I still haven’t mastered the fine art of the hot glue gun.

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?

Beyond The Winter Of Our Discontent

“Our winters are very long here, very long and very monotonous. But we don’t complain about it downstairs, we’re shielded against the winter. Oh, spring does come eventually, and summer, and they last for a while, but now, looking back, spring and summer seem too short, as if they were not much more than a couple of days…” ~Franz Kafka

Winter with my boys (2005)

Winter with my boys (2005)

Parenting is an intriguing journey. When I think back on my life to a time before I was someone’s mother, it is barely recognizable. I feel I’ve lived an entirely new life since those days pre-children. I’ve come to realize that parenting is not unlike a 365-day trip around the sun through the seasons. And just as you turn the calendar on a new year and suddenly find December on the next leaf, the important job of parenting too passes in a blur.

When we were expecting our first child, the freewheeling fall days of our life as married couple floated off, crisp leaves gathering under our feet, and we braced for the brisk change parenthood would bring. We geared up. We prepared for rough weather. And when our sons arrived, we immediately found ourselves housebound in a snowstorm of diapers, feedings, and nap times. A trip to the grocery store alone was my sunny day. A date night was a beach vacation with umbrella drinks. Most of the time we were holed up at home, trying to dig out from under Thomas the Tank Engine, wooden blocks, and plush animals. We uncovered solace in movie evenings with Nemo and Mr. Incredible and Lightning McQueen, which were followed by family sleepover nights in our room where we would hunker down and take long winter’s naps together. Those were some of the best nights of sleep we got during this period in our lives, and good nights of sleep were few and far between back then. We were perpetually tired, surviving on caffeine in the morning and sugar in the afternoon, and trying to find time for ourselves when we could. Everyone tells you to cherish life with your little ones but, like living through a seemingly endless, difficult winter, that was easier said than done. Continually exhausted and struggling to figure out the dynamics of our new family, we prayed for a thaw.

Gradually the boys grew, and days seemed less bleak. Toddlerhood ended. Full on youth arrived with all its exuberance and light. We emerged from our hibernation and began to go places because, well, going places was easier. Gone were the bottles and sippy cups and diaper bags and extra changes of clothes for blowouts and Baby Bjorns and strollers. We were no longer bundled up and weighed down with paraphernalia. We marveled at the ease with which we traveled. We walked to the park as they raced ahead and sat uninterrupted while they cavorted.  A garden’s worth of handmade, paper-flower bouquets sprang up, accompanied by colorful paintings and creative tales. They started school and we appreciated engaging with them as they discovered the little secrets of life we’d long since taken for granted. We introduced them more and more to things we loved. We grew as a family, figuring out who we were together and how life worked best. Sure…there were occasional squalls, and brief deluges reminded us we hadn’t reached summer yet, but I knew things were getting better when we stopped complaining as often about the weather. We breathed in the freedom and exhaled with peace.

The moment when spring ended and summer began wasn’t even distinguishable. One day we were praying for an extra fifteen minutes of sleep and the next we were waking up at 8:30 and wondering if the boys were dead. The boys began exploring their independence with sleepovers at friends’ homes and hours of Capture the Flag after dark and afternoons on their bikes at the park. Suddenly, we had something we hadn’t had in years. Quality time alone in our own home. This weekend, we had not one but two nights consecutive nights during which we got to be grown adults without responsibility for children. We weren’t even on vacation. We had lovely meals, conversation about topics other than Pokémon, and a rearview mirror glimpse of the winter years fading in the distance. We’re walking around in flip-flops with Mai Tais in our hands now compared to the days we experienced when the boys were toddlers, when we were buried under the daily tasks of wiping butts and spoon feeding. We’ve settled into this fairer weather and summer is in full swing.

With all this free time on my hands lately, though, it has begun to occur to me the added peace we’re enjoying in this warmer season heralds the earliest moments of the permanent quiet that lies ahead in our next season. The boys are growing older. They don’t hang out with us as often. They have their own interests. Their independence gives us our freedom but it also decreases our involvement in their lives as they begin to separate and form their own lives and identities. In the quiet over the past two nights, we’ve discussed how weird it’s going to be when we’re alone again. As slow as time seemed to be moving back in the early days is as quickly as it seems to be moving now. They’ll be gone before we know it.

And we now understand that this is why people tell you to enjoy your children while they’re young. As much as it sucks hearing it when you’re sleep-deprived, covered in baby puke, and dying for a minute alone in the bathroom, the universal truth of the eighteen years of parenting is that it flies by like seasons in a year. The parents who tell you to cherish the moments you’re wishing would pass a bit more quickly don’t mean any harm. They’re simply beyond the winter of their discontent and wishing they’d understood how quickly spring arrives with summer and fall nipping at its heels.

Boyhood

Stupid time and its flying

Stupid time and its flying

I watched the Golden Globe Awards last night. I watch them almost every year. I’m not a big Hollywood junkie or anything. I don’t have an investment in who wins the awards. I just watch to find out what shows or movies I might not want to miss. The Golden Globes are how I discovered Breaking Bad, and I have no regrets about the hours I logged watching Walter White. The Golden Globes are research. That is all.

Last night’s big winner was Boyhood, which won in the motion picture category for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Drama. I was curious, so today I rented it on iTunes. The director tells the story of a boy growing up, from age 6 to age 18. He did this by filming the actors once a year for 12 years. It’s brilliant, really. As you’re watching the film, you are literally watching the main character grow up before your eyes. I suppose that’s what makes the movie so poignant. As a parent watching my own kids blossom, it was damn near heartbreaking to watch. It’s a beautiful film and an appropriate reminder that time with our kids, no matter how exhausting, frustrating, and downright unpleasant it can be at times, is ephemeral. Damn all the people who have made a point of telling me that life is short. Damn them for being right.

Toward the end of the film, the mom is realizing that her nest is about to be emptied. She has a small meltdown and says, “I just thought there would be more.” More. She recognizes that she’s reached the milestones of her adult life. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. Finally getting her degree and her dream job. Watching her kids go off to college. The big stuff is over, and now all she can think is that the next phase of her life ends in her own funeral. We’re raised to focus on milestones. It’s all about reaching the next phase. We’re forever rushing forward until we reach the time when we feel we’ve gone too far too quickly. We just want to go back, but by then it’s too late.

I’ve been working to appreciate each moment as its own, knowing that this is all there is. I’m getting better at being present in my life. I know I must be because sometimes now I look at my boys and get weepy. In a good way. They’re so handsome and precious with their unique personalities and their whole lives ahead of them. The emotions I used to run from bubble over these days, spilling into everything I do. There are more hugs in my life now. More deep breaths. More moments of gratitude. When I hear that clock ticking, I make a conscious effort to slow it down by focusing on now. I know we’re all screwed up. I’m not alone in my insanity. It’s only recently that I’ve acknowledged that I’m one of the lucky ones. I get it.

The Puppy and The Bone I Threw Him

Our real puppy

Not the puppy in question

I recently wrote about how excited I was that my son found and began reading my blog posts. At the time, I felt like Queen of the World because this demonstrated to me, in some small way, that my son was interested in what I do and recognized that I am a person outside of simply being his mother. The other day, though, I discovered the rub with this new situation. My son reads my blog. This means that all the anecdotes I tell about him, ones I think are super cute and fun, are now open to his scrutiny. He could read what I write and feel embarrassed or, worse, feel I am making fun of him. It puts my responsibility to him as his mother above my responsibility to myself as writer. Dammit. To make matters worse, this discovery was precipitated by something cute I wanted to share about him that he was none too happy to have me share. It went something like this:

“So…I was thinking about writing about you and the whole puppy thing.”

“No,” he responded emphatically.

“But it’s so cute,” I countered with the growing realization that this might be an uphill battle.

“It’s embarrassing,” he replied. “What if someone I know reads it?”

“No one you know is going to read this,” I replied. “No one reads my blog.”

“Over a thousand people do,” he responded naively.

“I guarantee you that a thousand people are not reading my blog.”

“Doesn’t matter, Mom. Nothing dies on the Internet. If they don’t find it now, they will find it later. Stuff on the Internet never really goes away.”

This is true. We’ve discussed the benefits and pitfalls of the Internet ad nauseam. He knows that the Internet is not some ethereal netherworld. Things you put out there now could be there forever. To wit, here’s a link to a website I created in 1997 as a graduate student at Illinois State. Giggle heartily at my use of animated gifs, please. Just remember that it was 1997, I was using Adobe PageMaker software, and this dancing hamster was cutting edge. Also, it took five minutes to download a single photo and America Online was an actual thing. Did I mention it was 1997? Don’t judge.

For the past few days, I have been trying to wear my son down, still wanting to write about the puppy thing and hoping he would at last give me his blessing. I know this isn’t phenomenal-parent behavior on my part. I should respect my son’s wishes and just move on. But I really felt strongly about this puppy story, so I kept pursuing it. Yesterday, I finally got him to admit that perhaps something bigger than fear of embarrassment was troubling him. He acknowledged that since the puppy story involves another person perhaps that person might not appreciate it. I told him I would talk to that person personally at back-to-school night before writing anything. He looked at me with horror. Sensing that he was not going to win this battle and knowing I have the tenacity of a pit bull when so inclined to lock my jaws on something, he acquiesced…under one condition. I had to allow him to shoot me with his brother’s Nerf disc gun. It seemed like a small but fair price to pay for the rights to his puppy story. So, I stood still and let him assail me with several rounds of Nerf discs. You gotta be willing to sacrifice for your art.

Tonight, with bona fide permission to write the puppy blog I have been pestering him about for a week, I sat down with my MacBook Pro to fulfill my destiny. I got about this far and started to question whether I was making the right choice. I adore my son, and I would never want to do something in the short-term that would undermine our relationship for the long haul. I thought it only fair to give him one last chance to rescind his permission. He did. So, the story I’ve been working on all week will not come to fruition. I’m okay with it, even though it was a really cute story. Someday, when he is older and more comfortable in his own skin, he will roll over and let me tell his puppy story. In the meantime, I’ll just throw him this little bone.