Parenthood

F.I.P.

“I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often–because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.”     ~Glennon Doyle

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Splashy, aka Foggy Foo

On Tuesday night, minutes before we were scheduled to leave for our son’s high school Cross-Country Awards Banquet, I discovered our African dwarf frog belly up on the rocks at the bottom of his aquarium home. Although he (I decided years ago he was a he without any biological proof) hadn’t been acting himself for weeks and I had suspected this was coming, the knowledge he was gone left me with a frog-shaped hole in my heart where he had escaped like a cartoon character busting through a wall and leaving only his outline.

Nine years ago, as a heart bandaid after a life-scarring debacle in which my son and I unsuccessfully attempted to raise a tadpole into frogdom, I purchased from Brookstone (don’t ask) four fully grown aquatic frogs in small habitats. Each of my young sons would have two critters to care for. That was the plan, anyway. Although the boys named them, Padme and Anakin and Swimmy and Splashy, we all know how the story goes. I fed them. I cleaned their watery homes, bought their food, and looked for new plants for their decor. They were mine in all their froggy glory from the beginning because I had killed their tadpole and these were my mea culpa. Still, I told the boys that these frogs were temporary, short-lived pets and they needed to prepare themselves for that.

Padme, like her Star Wars character, was the first to perish that first year she moved in. About a year later, Swimmy and Anakin died within a few weeks of each other. I figured the last holdout wouldn’t last much longer on his own and I would be free of the stigma of the tadpole catastrophe and the work of the frog experiment. Splashy, who was now referred to by the unfortunate sobriquet Foggy Foo, however, continued to thrive. Research told me most most aquatic dwarf frogs lived less than five years in captivity. After six years, I began to suspect Foggy Foo was an anomaly.

Foggy and I worked out a marvelous relationship over the years. He recognized my voice and would emerge from his house when I called him. He did not do this for anyone else. He would swim to the top to eat when I fed him and had on occasion eaten from my hand. I would often pause during my day to check on him. I enjoyed watching him and listened for his muffled songs. We had a bond. He was my little guy. I loved him as much as any human can love an amphibian, although definitely not in the same way Sally Hawkins loves her amphibian in The Shape of Water.

My heart broke a little the night he left us. Although I compartmentalized the loss until after the awards banquet, when we got home I carefully lifted him via fish net from the bottom of the tank and brought him upstairs to the main floor commode. I gathered my men, gently deposited Foggy’s lifeless form into the bowl, and we said a few words about our deceased friend. Float in peace, we told him as I depressed the high-flow option on the toilet and flushed him with great flourish to his final resting place.

I won’t lie. I shed a few tears Tuesday night. And, since then, I’ve shed a few more. I am verklempt thinking about him now. The space on the counter he occupied for years is desolate, and I suspect the frog-shaped hole in my heart is there to stay. Perhaps it seems silly to mourn a tiny frog who existed on the periphery of our lives, but the smallest things can hold within them the deepest of life’s lessons. That frog was a link to the days when my boys were young, noisy whirlwinds who made our house reverberate with life. With Foggy’s passing, I can see that my little guys are also gone, replaced by hirsute young men with booming voices and earbuds that render me silent. Letting go of Foggy is an acknowledgment that soon my sons will leave Joe- and Luke-shaped holes in my heart as they also escape my world. It sucks and it’s worth a few tears.

I am working on the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, knowing that the most important thing I can do for myself in this life is to welcome what is without wanting to change it. This is much easier said than done. Joe and I will begin touring colleges next week, and I have no idea how we got here. But life is messy and emotional and difficult, full of reasons to laugh and cry. So, I will float on and be in what is and cry when I need to and laugh when I can because I am paying attention. I will practice my patient acceptance so I too can float in peace someday.

 

On A Lighter Note

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

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

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

Dear Aunt Bobby and Mary Lynn,

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

Love, Joe

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

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

 

 

The Tell-Tale Cry of Nothing

Little monsters

Little monsters

I was standing in our sons’ bedroom tonight as they were settling in for the night and I was struck with a memory from our recent past. When they were younger, on occasion I would hear a bang, crash, thump, or some other oddly loud sound coming from where they were. Before I could even inquire about the noise, one would holler to me at the top of his lungs to stop the impending investigation.

“NOTHING.”

That was it. No explanation. No apology. Sometimes it was repeated rapidly several times in the same way to reinforce the complete and utter nothingness of the nothing. It still makes me laugh to think about it. I always figured that if no one was crying and the house wasn’t suddenly filled with smoke and the ceiling hadn’t caved in and there was no water cascading in a flash flood down the stairs, all was well. Or at least well enough. I’d find out soon enough what mischief they’d been up to.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t supposed to have secrets. I kept a journal, and I knew it was read despite my best efforts to hide it. I would set it a certain way before I left and sometimes when I returned I could tell it had been moved. I guess I don’t blame my mom for snooping. Parents have to look out for their kids. I suppose my journal was as close as she was going to get to finding out what was going on in my head. Still, my lack of privacy growing up deeply influenced how much respect I have for my sons’ right to keep some things to themselves. Not everything, but some things.

So far, I’ve been lucky. Most of the time, they do admit when things go awry. They fess up when they mess up. Maybe not without prompting, but they don’t persist in a lie for no reason. I learned a lesson from my youth. The more my parents pried, the more I clammed up. In response, with my own children I’ve decided not to sweat the little things because I want them to trust me when the big things pop up. And I know they will.

I don’t often hear the tell-tale cry of NOTHING these days. Perhaps it’s because they’re older and spend more time playing on electronics than wrestling. Perhaps it’s because they’re better at covering things up. Or perhaps it’s because they’ve accepted that I know they’re good kids and there’s nothing they could do that would make me love them less.

Nothing.

 

Snap Out Of It

This is what you do with untrodden snow.

The beauty of untrodden snow

“We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and to love the wrong people and die. I mean, the storybooks are bullshit.” ~Moonstruck

It’s a new year. And, although I understand that every day is a blank whiteboard upon which I can write the story of my life, there’s something about a new year that sucks me in. It’s not simply one 24-hour revolution. It’s a 365-day, brand new trek. There’s a faint whiff of that new year smell. There’s potential and promise and possibility rolled out before me. It all starts now.

When I was a child, my mother stubbornly forbade us from running through freshly fallen snow in our front yard. We could run around the back yard or in the neighbors’ yards to our hearts’ content, but our front yard was not to be disturbed. There was something about the appearance nature’s immaculate whitewash in front of our house that appealed to her. I knew it was some sort of sacred space she needed, but her unwillingness to let us weave patterns with our boots and leave our personal marks vexed me. Snow is meant to become snowmen and snow forts and snow angels. Eventually, these flawless white yards became folklore as I grew older and stopped playing in snow because boots and coats were uncool. It became a vague memory that I decided I fabricated or embellished to tell a better story. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my sisters confirmed my truth. Our childhood had a boundary, and the perfectly snowy front yard was it.

As I headed out with the dog today for a New Year’s Day walk, I stopped to appreciate the snow in our yard. It wasn’t the yard my mom cherished. The boys had been out there, and it was cacophony of uproarious footprints, not an untouched spot in sight. I thought about my mom and her need for that clean yard. I can relate to her sense of beauty and the pleasure she must have derived from the serenity of tidy snow. Motherhood is, after all, a sloppy endeavor, and the front yard was something she could control. It was the part of our home life that could be unblemished. Our flawless front yard granted her a facade of order and some semblance of peace. But, at the end of the day, virgin snow is about as realistic as a clean house. No matter what you do, it never lasts for long. It’s the perfect family photo that fails to relay the chaos behind the moments just prior to its capture. Reality is messy. Life, like a snowy yard, is meant to be experienced. Trying to keep it neat is a waste of time.

As an adult, I see each new year as my childhood’s unblemished front yard. After years of avoiding messes, I understand the privilege inherent in making my mark. Decorum is optional. If 2015 is anything like 2014, I will leave circles where I chased my tail and lines where I dragged my feet. There will be angels where I stopped for fun, some snow critters where I was creative, and forts where I dug in and fortified myself for the long haul. I will leave this year as gloriously pockmarked and lived in as I left last year. Today, though, on a spotless 1/1, I’m gazing over that quiet, blank slate and trying to decide where to head first. Last year’s funk is gone. Time to snap out of 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.

All Apologies

This morning I was going through some of the boys’ school papers. Joe almost never hands his to me because he flat-out forgets. I recover them months later when I notice his backpack has become too heavy to lift. Luke tosses his graded papers onto the counter amidst the usual chaos there where they often rest unnoticed until I finally remember there is an actual countertop under there and determine I should find it. At that point, they usually find their way to the trash because I don’t have the time to look through papers 20 minutes before company is scheduled to arrive. This morning, though, on a counter that was mostly clear because we had company over for dinner on Sunday, I found Luke’s papers and decided to flip through them before depositing them in the trash.

Luke's paper

Try not to notice that my son has me pegged for a Target addiction with his drawing.

 

Most of Luke’s papers were stamped Excellent or had positive comments written on them in Ms. Fitzwater’s bold, Sharpie markers. She had even drawn some pictures on the few of the papers, which I thought was above and beyond the usual teacher commentary. On this one paper, though, I noticed she had written, “Good second try!” Second try?

“Hey, Luke….”

“Yeah, Mom?”

I showed him the paper.

“Second try? Did you have to do this paper again?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“What happened to the first try?”

Luke looked right at me and in his usual unapologetic, straightforward way responded.

“You could say I didn’t find the right words….or use correct spelling…or use any punctuation..or make real sentences the first time.”

Well…there you go. I suppose that would invite a redo.

Luke is a funny kid. He’ll lie to you if he thinks he can get away with it. If you catch him in a lie, he will come clean without apologizing. It used to bother me, the lack of apology. Then I realized that his lack of contrition is the correct response. Why should he apologize for something he meant to get away with?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this lack of apology and how freeing it must be. I grew up apologizing…for everything. As a child, I was continually made aware if I were being too loud, too quiet, too aloof, too inquisitive, too busy, too lazy, or too whatever-adjective-you-want-to-insert. I became constantly fearful that whatever I was doing affected others in a negative way. I learned to apologize for my emotions, my actions, and my choices, as if everything I did was open to comments from the peanut gallery. I went into my adult life with a hesitant, cautious demeanor. It colored everything I did and reduced the number of things I was willing to attempt. It wasn’t until I hit midlife and felt time ticking away on me that I figured it was time to stop being so damned sorry all the time.

Luke was sent to me for a reason. He’s in my life to teach me that it’s okay not to offer unnecessary apologies. Luke is excellent at empathy and generous about owning up when he’s truly at fault or has caused pain. He merely doesn’t look for excuses for contrition. He doesn’t assume they’re necessary. That’s a skill I am working on. Luke lives his life. He is who he is and he knows what he wants. He knows what his strengths are and he knows his weaknesses too, although he’s smart enough not to dwell on them. There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not grateful for what my son has brought to my life. Perhaps if I take some cues from Luke, I will finally grow up and learn to live without being all apologies.

Mama Said

Two boys in a jogger stroller and a 75 pound dog on a leash? Yep. I got this.

Two boys in a jogger stroller and a 75 pound dog on a leash? Yep. I got this.

As I was exiting yoga today and walking towards my car, I noticed a mother with two young sons standing by a minivan. I’m not a highly observant person as a rule (ie., you would not want me to pick someone out of a line up), so it’s fair to say that the reason I noticed them at all was because her oldest son was mid-tantrum and wailing terribly. She was holding her younger son on her hip while the older son rolled on the pavement in the parking lot. Next to him were the spilled remnants of what appeared to be a large cup of fro-yo complete with toppings. She was talking to him in a stern voice in an attempt to quell the tantrum, but the whole thing wasn’t going so well for her. I knew she was having one of those Calgon-take-me-away moments to which all moms can relate (even if they don’t want to admit it). She was young, or at least younger than me, and she was beside herself and becoming increasingly frustrated. I averted my eyes lest she feel inadvertently judged, got into my car, and quietly thanked the heavens that my boys are no longer toddlers.

I don’t miss those days, although I do remember them as if they were yesterday. Like the mom today, I too bear the scars of dropped ice cream cones that gave way to full-fledged meltdowns in public places where passersby shot me derisive looks and shook their heads. I recall the amazement I felt when I realized I’d been reduced to a spineless, kowtowing dope by a 30-pound, 3 year old boy who was only standing on this planet because I dropped him here. Literally. It was a sobering moment. As I watched the mom struggle in the parking lot today, a part of me wanted to approach her and tell her she was doing a good job. I wanted to tell her that despite what all the books tell you some days being a parent feels more like a curse than a blessing. I wanted to let her know that I had been standing exactly in her shoes and that some day she would be standing in my shoes watching another mom struggle through the same situation. It happens all the time. But, I didn’t go talk to her. I didn’t say anything because I know that when I was at that point in my life, any comment about my parenting experience was like nails on a chalkboard. When people would see my young kids and tell me to “enjoy them because they grow up so fast,” I wanted to smack them for asking me to cherish something that was beyond unpleasant for me in that moment. I get it now, but then I was bitter.

When I think about my experience parenting over the past almost 12 years, what strikes me is how unfair I’ve been with myself. I’ve berated myself and belittled my efforts. I understand now that I’ve only ever done the best I was capable of at the time with the knowledge I had in that moment. Sure, in hindsight I made some stupid decisions, but I didn’t know any other way. I wish I could go back in time and tell that younger me, standing there in the parking lot at the mercy of my tantrum-enhanced child, that it was nothing more than a bad day. I would tell myself to relax. Ice cream gets dumped. Kids throw fits. It happens, and it doesn’t mean that you’re an overly indulgent parent or that your child is a spoiled brat. It simply means that gravity won that round.

Some days being the parent truly sucks, as the minivan mom in the parking lot of the Vitamin Cottage today can truly attest. Parenting books offer suggestions, but they don’t know you, your unique child, or your family circumstances. Some days you have to sing Kumbaya  and practice a trust fall with yourself, knowing that in the end it will all work out. Mama wasn’t lying when she said there would be days like this. What she failed to mention, though, is that you shouldn’t sweat it. You’ve got this.