Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mommies Who Drink Too Much This past summer, Diane Schuler sped drunkenly down the Taconic Parkway - the wrong way - tragically killing her daughter, six other people, and herself. The ensuing outrage, even bewilderment, over mothers who drink far too much, detonated for weeks. Mothers have sought relief and solace in alcohol for a very long time; Diane Schuler just put a very public face onto the excess of drinking. "My kids are driving me to drink!" exclaim many moms at times, followed by a laugh. It is not uncommon for mothers of young children - infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers - to get together for play groups and, while the kids busy themselves with one another, the mommies sip a glass of wine. Or two. And on occasion, a mom may make it a chardonnay hat-trick. She then tucks her child into his or her car seat, and drives. Full disclosure: I am not judging or nor being holier-than-thou. Because I have been there. Not there-there watching this happen to others, but there-there as in participating, by being the one mom who enjoyed the alcohol a little bit too much. By also being the mom who would eventually pick up her preschooler and kindergartner (her third and fourth children, respectively) at after-school care at five in the afternoon, with a Diet Coke can full of white wine, or beer. And get behind the wheel of her car, mercifully - and amazingly - never driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Or into a pole or a tree or a ditch. I am the mom who very shortly after a number of these trips with her wine roadie - my "mommy juice" I called it -put down the drink for good. This was over 10 years ago. The strongest thing I drink now is pure, unadulterated Diet Coke. I am far and away not the only mommy who drank too much. If you visit a local 12-step meeting you might be surprised to observe the number of mothers of young children. And they aren't the bedraggled, low income or perhaps uneducated people that society often stereotypes alcoholics to be. They are your neighbors, your small and large business owners, the ones with the Masters degrees, the multi-volunteering moms... even your friends. I am also describing the still actively drinking mothers, the ones you notice imbibe a tad too much socially, and those who fly under-the-radar; the women who couldn't possibly abuse alcohol because they - what? - seem too perfect, too together, too nice? Let me tell you, although I am far from perfect and my have-it-all-together days don't necessarily equal the headless-chicken days, I was and still am, well, nice. I didn't look as though my body and my mind had begun to crave alcohol. I lived in a decent-sized house, I had the ubiquitous Suburban, I had just sold the magazine I had founded. My drinking hadn't destroyed my marriage, hadn't made me lose my house, my job, nor my children. What it had made me lose was Julie. I had lost Julie and thought perhaps I could find her in a bottle, that maybe, too, that drink would help me feel less overwhelmed and stressed about suddenly being a stay-at-home mom to four kids under age 15. That being a little bit buzzed would make the kids' fighting, screaming and needing me less intense. The drink did none of those things. The drink just made me drunk. A drunk mommy, not a better mommy. I wasn't a daily drinker. One doesn't need to drink every day or evening to be an alcoholic. It's a disease that is cunning and baffling; insidious. And it begets denial. Which is why many people who probably should stop, simply don't. My younger two kids have never seen me drunk (that they remember). I was able to be present-and-accounted for during my older sons' teen years, and of course for the present ones. Getting sober was the best thing I could have ever done for my family. If someone reading this perhaps recognizes a little of themselves in me, please do not feel ashamed to admit to a problem. And to seek help. I know I felt more ashamed to keep on drinking; it took courage and love to stop.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ready, Set, Let Go

Letting go doesn't mean we don't care. Letting go doesn't mean we shut down.
Letting go means we stop trying to force outcomes and make people behave." ~ Melody Beattie

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons in life a person faces is letting go; letting go of people, places, things... even ourselves at times, as well as emotions or feelings. As a parent, the ability to let go as opposed to hanging on is especially - and keenly - agonizing.

I left claw marks on Blake, 26,
and Kenny, 24, not only as they left the house for the Marines and college, respectively, but also as they entered their 20's. I watched helplessly as my authority, responsibility and influence seemed to vanish as vapor. I had to reluctantly allow them to explore, perhaps flounder, face fears or dangers, and make decisions based on their needs, not my desires. Letting go completely ebbs and flows within my heart and in my inherent actions.

As a mother, I have been trained to fix. I fixed hunger by offering bottles of formula, snacks, meals. I took care of discomfort by changing a diaper, burping, administering to tummy aches and boo-boo's, proffering my shoulder to cry on, or my side of the bed in which to snuggle. I went to bat with teacher troubles, mean kids, unfortunate situations. But once a child leaves the house, after they then they reach the milestone of age 21, it is no longer my job to fix, to restore, to protect. Even for the children yet to leave the nest, it has been uncomfortably necessary for me to back off, step aside... let go.

When my daughter, Jess, went off to boarding school for a year-and-a-half, I had to turn the reigns of her day-to-day over to the school deans, headmasters and teachers, who acted "in loco parentis." It was an initial torture, and then actually, a bit of a relief (she is a teenager, after all). Now she is back at home and back at the high school. And I am trying to resist wearing a Harry Potter-like "cloak of invisibility" and be by her side as she negotiates the social and academic minefield from whence she once fled. But in letting go, I am reminded of the strength of her spirit now. I remember that when she left for boarding school I passed on to her a Carl Jung saying which in and of itself is really about letting go of what and how we may perceive ourselves: "I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become."

Jess overcame and became. And she continues to define herself and not allow others to apply their own label. I like to think that we have inspired and inspire one another to shake off that which is not important in the big scheme of things.

It is, of course, not always easy to see the forest for the trees. To recognize when to hold 'em, or when to fold 'em. Sometimes my grip on my kids is so tight that it hurts. Yet at the same time, I comprehend the word serenity and I know peace. It occurs when I loosen my hands and exhale, knowing that I am not as in control of their destinies as I once so fiercely believed.

All humans need to fail in some way, shape or form so that they may grow; become stronger, better. Sometimes sadder, but wiser. We have to learn to let go of resentments: Resentments are like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. I was harboring one against someone recently, and the result was, it was eating me up and taking up too much space in my head rent-free. The way in which I was able to let it go was to speak with the individual, who clearly hadn't died from the poison, in a calm and loving way. Was I still sadder? Yes. And wiser, too. That's the key.

It saddens me to imagine that I am an unemployed mother to Blake and Kenny, these young men well into their 20's. That image, that reality is false. Of course I am still their mother! Of course they will still consider my opinions, suggestions, offers for aid both financial and emotional. And even though my two teens at home often hallucinate that I am no longer of use (except as a chef and a taxi driver and a human ATM), my heart and sensibility reassures me that they, too, need me for so much more than that.

"Some think it's holding on that makes one strong; sometimes it's letting go."

Be a strong parent. And avoid the obvious claw marks whenever possible.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Students on bored

During one of those gross, incredibly hot, humid dog days of mid-August, I asked Jack and a friend if they were looking forward to going back school, now that they were going to be eighth graders. Big Men on the Totem Pole. Kings of the School, etc. (I know, I know... as if they were going to pipe up with anything but a collective groan).

"I wish I were going to kindergarten," Jack's friend mused.

"Not me," said Jack. "Kindergarten was lame. All you did was learn that two plus two equals four and have nap-time." Spoken like my true eager-to-learn youngest. (At least that is how I have chosen to look at him through my rose-colored shades and all.)

"Actually," he amended, "we didn't need the stupid nap-time then. That was dumb. We weren't even tired. We need nap-time now because we have to get up at 6:15 in the morning! They should give us nap-time!" His friend hooted his approval of this thought.

If any members of the Board of Ed are reading this, and can rectify the matter, Jack would be pretty pleased. And nap-time might be more feasible than the later start time thing.

I believe many parents pose the same question to their offspring and friends of their offspring as I did above, because - really and honestly now - it is we who are excited and looking forward to school starting. It's not that we wouldn't mind maybe another few days of summer, but after eight-plus weeks of kids under foot, maybe whining hither and thither about being bored, the structure of a school day and the six or so hours of not being on call loom pleasantly welcome.

Even though our child may not openly (or at least enthusiastically) cop to being excited for the new year ahead, he or she is usually anticipating some aspect. There's the stunningly big-kid feel the just-entering-kindergarten child experiences; the trepidation the incoming middle schooler tastes; the relief at not being a freshman that the high school sophomore enjoys, or the pure giddy yet at the same time terrifying sensation inherent in the senior-to-be.

Just as it isn't always so easy to get a kid to admit to their anticipation of returning to school, so to is it not such a piece of cake getting them to reveal how said school days are going for them.

Ask, "How's school?," and be prepared for "good," even if it wasn't, or "boring," even - again - if it wasn't. Occasionally the response may be: "bad." But do not ask "Why?" because nine out of 10 times, you won't get an answer. At least not right away. Although your brain is screaming, "Why-why-why, omigod why, what happened?!" please resist. Instead, try in a less inquisitive, less frantic manner the following: "Oh that's too bad, honey. Well, if you want to talk about it I'm here. All ears." Either they will launch into it, or they will wait a few beats, or maybe even a few hours. Try not to pressure them, as whatever it was that is making them describe the day as "bad" is giving them pressure enough. Their definition of "bad" may more than likely equal a disappointing grade, or a confusing lecture, or a poor performance in gym class. Of course it could also be a bullying incident or an unrequited crush. When they are ready to spill, let them, resisting the urge to editorialize or "fix it" immediately (except in the case of taunting or physical bullying, of course).

The other response to "How was school?" is the ubiquitous: "School is boring." Sure. Of course it is, sweetie. You are such a brainiac that you don't need to be learning anything new. You can read, write, solve mathematical and scientific questions in your sleep. Who needs to know about the history of this country or any other for that sake! Music and art? Pishaw - you could teach the class yourself you creative king or queen of the world, you!

"Boring" my backside.

All of my kids at one time or another claimed to like recess the best. They expressed annoyance that recess stops in high school, until I would remind them of the free periods which would exist in their school schedule.

"It's the same thing. Only better," I said.

And don't you know? Even the free period has been described as, wait for it... "boring."

Maybe if those free periods were re-designated as nap-time?

I think I'm onto something here...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The "Oy!" of boys

I have three sons, two in their mid-20's and one a young teenager. That amounts to drama cubed. Heart-stopping episodes and head-scratching times three. I also have a daughter, but she is a drama of a different flavor; the sort of drama that as a fellow female I can easily relate. But the boys? Oy!

My sons have provided me with over a dozen frantic trips to hospital emergency rooms. I receive very little information about any significant females in their lives, nor even basic information on their whereabouts in the world at times. They smell funny. Ergo, their bedrooms smell funny, foreign. Their feet grew/grow at ridiculously fast paces. They eat too much, too quickly, and leave the empty boxes, wrappers, and containers in the cupboard or in the refrigerator, or lounging on end tables, or perched on window sills, which is infuriating on several levels. One of which being they will complain about there not being any more cookies, chips, cereal, or soda,, yet heaven forbid they actually open their mouths to inform me of this until they are once again ravenous.

"Mom!" Kenny used to whine. "There's no food!"

I would walk into the kitchen to find him standing in front of the pantry, doors flung open. Pantry, full of food.

"What are you talking about?! Look at all of that!"

"I need good food. Food I can eat," he'd claim.

"And what would that be, pray tell?" I would ask, exasperated. "Give me details and when I go to the store next I will buy it."

"You know," he'd reply, grinning and walking away from the kitchen, "Good stuff."

This annoying and confusing scenario is currently being played out with Jack, the one boy remaining in my nest. He will become indignant that I haven't returned from the grocery store with his beloved Gushers, or pretzels or chocolate milk, yet when I checked inventory before leaving, said items were still present and accounted for. Why I am surprised that food vanishes in a whirl after raising two sons before him is a bafflement, but clearly I am constantly astonished anew.

The breaking and tearing and slicing of body parts on boys has been more drama than I believe I can handle and yet, each time it happens, I somehow manage to survive, right alongside of them. Kenny has broken his tibia twice, his wrist once, and several fingers were broken and smushed once when Blake - accidentally, on-purpose - slammed a door on Kenny's hand when they were ages eight and six, respectively.

Thirteen-year-old Jack's more dramatic injuries have included a significant, nine-stitch worthy, accidental gash to the upper forehead from a golf club-wielding Jess six years ago, the top of his middle finger being inadvertently sliced off by a heavy door two years ago (and luckily being sewn back on in the E.R. after yours truly found it smiling up from the pavement), and, most recently, he received 27 stitches to his cheek after a freak accident in his cabin at camp in Wyoming last month.

I sit or stand by them as they lie on the table in the hospital, gripping their hand as they are stitched or cast or prodded, blinking back tears as they try and do the same. I try not to vomit or faint. I smile though my heart is aching. There is no chapter on how to do this in any of those "What to Expect When..." tomes.

There has been no manual to prepare me for a son going into combat, or for one who wanders aimlessly through and around the United States, or Canada or Mexico; when Kenny is traveling outside of the U.S. he does not have a cell phone with international call capability. I am at the mercy of him perhaps gaining some internet access and posting a status that he is, blessedly, still alive.

Blake, by virtue of his profession in the military, will not communicate with me for weeks and on occasion for a couple of months, and I always feel that this is drama I could well do without.

"Boys will be boys," the adage goes, but it is not specific as to what the boy will do or say to bear out the expression. Parents of boys learn pretty early on though, I think, that boys actually do not always say, share or emote in a similar manner to girls, to daughters. Sons may tend to be a bit more spontaneous, reckless, fearless.

That said, sons are just like daughters, however, in their ability to at once break - and fully fill up - your heart. Neither the male or the female of offspring corners the market on that.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

It's all about the climb

As I write this from Wyoming, my younger two children are at a camp which allows them to challenge themselves and take risks. And they are literally climbing mountains. The climb is but a metaphor, really. To me, it has been an important part of my parenting to encourage them to venture outside their comfort zone, to put one foot in front of the other as they look uphill, even as it has me catching my breath with apprehension; we both grow.

My parents instilled in my brother and me a sense of adventure. My father used to exclaim to us that we should reach for, grasp, the brass ring on the merry-go-round of life. He even framed one and presented it to our mother on one of their wedding anniversaries. She was his brass ring. The risk that paid off.

Neither my parents, nor I, advocated/advocate the sort of precarious behavior that can lead to a child's self-harm or destruction. I have cheered them on to try something untried. If they fail, then they fail. If they discover that they don't like doing things that make them uncomfortable, well, then they have learned something about themselves. There's a lot behind the axiom, "You don't know unless you try."

In my experience, it has been vital to my children and me to let go when letting go presents itself. I may be gripped with fear or trepidation about something they want to attempt, but what if I persist in denying them and the thing hoped for and never tasted becomes a deep regret; a resentment?

I wonder what Blake would be like if I had not signed his enlistment papers for the Marines? If I somehow had the power to have prevented Kenny two years ago from embarking on his vagabond lifestyle? Would they be the capable, interesting, brave and courageous young men they are today? Young men with tales and strength born of risk, of facing fears neither one knew they even harbored?

It's not always about reaching the summit; it's often about how one gets there. Half-measures avail us nothing. We poise at the turning point. And then... we leap.

My daughter Jess articulates my point the best:

"Ain't about how fast I get there, ain't about what's waiting on the other side, it's the climb." ~Miley Cyrus

I have always been inspired by Miley Cyrus. However, her newest hit single, "The Climb", made me reflect on my life even more. Cyrus talks about how even though you're going to come across obstacles in life, you can overcome them if you believe. In just a matter of days, this song will constantly be playing in my head. This is because I will literally be climbing mountains in the backcountry of Wyoming. I realize that it will be tough, but as long as I keep pushing on I will eventually reach my goal and end up on top.

The program that I will be taking part in is known as TVR Expeditions, which is affiliated with Teton Valley Ranch Camp, north of Jackson Hole. I have been going to the camp for the past five years, last summer being my final as a camper, but now they offer this special program featuring an eleven day backpack, and then, finally, summiting the Grand Teton, which involves intense rock climbing.

Figuratively speaking, the climb will prepare me for what I will be experiencing in the coming school year. After about a year and a half of attending boarding school, I will be returning to New Canaan High School. I left because I couldn't handle things, but now I have the confidence to rise above them. Academically, I have not been doing so well. Junior year is the most important, in my opinion, so I will have to trust that I will succeed as long as I keep my faith. There will be ups and downs during the transition to living at home again, like not taking the freedom I will be obtaining for granted.

When I make it to the top of the Grand this summer, I will be sure to remember the feeling, and take it with me when I go back home. As Cyrus states: "There's always gonna be another mountain, I'm always gonna wanna make it move. Always gonna be an uphill battle, sometimes I'm gonna have to lose."

We all slip sometimes, but I will never fall.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Facebook and the family

A few weeks before Jack turned 13, he asked me if he could have a Facebook page.

"No, you're too young," I answered.

"But Jess has a page! Blake and Kenny have a page! You have a page!" he cried. "Jeez, even Daddy has a page," he finished with a flourish of sarcasm. "You can have a page at 13 now," he told me, rattling off the names of several friends who had already turned the magical 13 and had entered into the realm of Facebook.

"Well, you have to 'friend' me. That's the only way I'll let you do it," I bargained, while promising never to embarrass him by posting on his page.

And so, when his birthday dawned, we set it up. We are now a family of Facebookers.

For the uninitiated, Facebook is a free-access social networking website, originally aimed at college-aged persons. Today, users can join networks by city, organization, workplace, school, region, etc. There are nearly 200 million people on Facebook and certainly not all are ages 18 to 24 (although they do account for over 19 million of the users). The fastest growing demographic is women over age 55 (!), and 17 million users are between 35 and 55+. That would account for a lot of us; "us" being parents.

I initially went on Facebook to spy on my daughter. Except she wouldn't "friend" me. She exclaimed that it was embarrassing and lame that I had set-up an account. Under orders, she will show me her page from time to time, and I have been able to check out a lot of her pictures whenever she "tags" one of her older brothers in a photo (I discovered that by clicking on the snapshot, it magically took me into her photo section!). But basically my daughter stalking attempts back-fired. However, her brothers are far less secretive, and I can track Kenny's whereabouts as he roams the country, and check on whether or not Blake is truly unable to have Internet access while at sea or elsewhere.

At first all was calm for me, though as I say, I was discouraged that I couldn't easily enter the realm of Jessie's high school shenanigans. Soon, however, I inexplicably found myself back in high school instead when former classmates began "friend" requesting me right and left! And then they began posting photos of me on my page - along with themselves of course - with those hideous early to mid-1970's hair, clothes... yikes! People have come out of the freaking woodwork, including those I vaguely remembered, and those who were (are) several years younger than me, of whom I have zippo memory.

Facebook users can post a status, which is a word, a sentence, and more, of what they happen to be doing at that moment or that day, etc., a la Twitter (if you want an explanation of that, ask your kid). While our childrens statuses are along the lines of:" School; eeww. Tennis after!" and "Phone broken," many older users put up a status that is more relevant to their age or being a parent: "My son turns 12 today!," or "'Supercalifragilstic!' - Off to Mary Poppins," "Who remembers the 1970 song, 'It's a Rainy Night in Georgia?'" and "Happy Spring! Can the runny noses and sniffles now go away, please?"

My words of caution for Facebook usage are simple. A) Monitor whom your child is "friending." Is it really someone they know, or might it actually be a creepy older person with ill-intentions? B) Make sure the information that they post about themselves does not include their address, or even their telephone number (see the possibilities of A), and C) Caution them in regard to the nature of the posts on their own Wall and on others, especially the content of any videos and photographs. One never knows whose parent or which faculty member has access to those pages/posts, nor how their peers will perceive what has been, essentially, published.

Word to the parent Facebooker: Choose your profile photo wisely. And even though your kid might choose to reveal their birth year, you don't necessarily have to. Or - per your profile visage - want to.

Monday, March 30, 2009

When divorce comes calling

I got divorced from my first husband 22 years ago this month. My two oldest sons - products of that short-lived and mostly unfortunate union - seem to have gotten through the two decades-long aftermath pretty unscathed. But then again, this is just my opinion; I imagine having to forever explain "my parents are divorced" must carry with it some baggage.

Not to sound trite, but divorce happens; we've all seen the statistics. Sometimes all the best efforts to avoid a dissolution of a marriage aren't fruitful. And then there are vague attempts made at staying married, and, of course, steps to prevent it not even ventured: adultery, domestic abuse or abandonment may yield no forgiveness whatsoever. It goes without saying that the adults involved are cut to the core, especially when there are children as a result of the marriage. Those children are unequivocally the collateral damage of a failed relationship.

Kenny and Blake were too young - ages two and three-and-a-half, respectively - to have had the all-too-common child reaction that perhaps the decision to divorce was somehow their fault. Blake claims to have had memories of us together (not always happy), and Kenny - none. I always maintained the feeling that I wouldn't have to get into the reasons behind the split, that their father would make it clear as to why by his actions (chronically unemployed, among a few other things), and that notion did, in fact, come to fruition. As they got older, I did explain a cause or two, leaving myself in the equation; it takes two to tango after all.

Reassuring your child that a separation or divorce was none of their doing and that their relationship with both parents should remain intact is important. As much honesty as possible or, rather, as appropriate, is also key. Trying to hide the conflict may drive the child away, convinced that their parents lie and aren't to be trusted. Yet again, don't give them details that are better kept between adults, especially when the children are young.

One common by-product in separation is that of the angry or resentful parent (or parents) unwittingly taking that anger out on or through the children. To use the vernacular: "That ain't cool." Yet were my ex-husband and I 100-percent successful on that score? Sadly and uncomfortably: No.
And I have heard the same, and observed it as well, from more than a dozen divorcing or divorced people over the years. The goal, nonetheless, is to keep one's frustrations between yourself and your ex. Another suggestion among the professionals (i.e. lawyers, mediators, those in the mental health field) is to help your children through the difficult task of family change with a therapist, or via support groups targeted at children of divorce. Schools may offer such groups through the guidance department - Blake and Kenny attended several of those discussion gatherings at their elementary school - and your local youth services department is another source of information. Although its been over 20 years since I divorced, it still stings somewhat; the stigma of it. Nobody enters into marriage imagining that it will collapse. My older two obviously have a different last name than myself and, of course, their two half-siblings, and I am still a tad ill-at-ease while explaining the dissimilar names to new friends. Oh - I won't even get into how I had to explain to my younger two why I was married before, and who that guy was that Blake and Kenny would spend every-other-weekend with, and why. Sure, some anecdotes are comical, but mostly it was uncomfortable for me. That and handling their pre-school and elementary-school thinking that since I divorced once, I could easily act that out again with their father. Suffice it to say that explaining a broken marriage to children is a tricky business. Sometimes, such as in my case, kids may simply be too young to truly notice a significant change in their family unit. As a friend of mine, Erin, shared with me, her now teenagers were but one and three years old when she divorced: "They didn't know any different; they don't know any different." Whether a divorce comes after five, 15, or 25 years of marriage, the end of a marriage is still uncharted territory. It is a life-altering event to be sure, but it needn't be eyed as a "life-ending" one. On the contrary, both parent and child can view - or grow to view it - as a positive solution to a chronic problem.
"Someone may have stolen your dream when it was young and fresh and you were innocent. Anger is natural. Grief is appropriate. Healing is mandatory. Restoration is possible."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Did you ever think you'd say...? Part 2

Yes, there are many things we never imagined ourselves saying or doing. And then there are words that come out of our mouths which seem to make sense to us (unlike "poopie" which was discussed last column). Until they are examined at close range. We parents - we adults, regardless of our parenting status - can utter the darndest things.

When Blake was home this past Christmas, we ran into some old family friends who had not seen him for at least 10 years. They exclaimed, as we all are wont to do: "Wow! Look at you! You got so big and grown-up!" Later on Blake commented, "Why do older people always say that?! Of course I grew up... did they actually think I'd stay a kid forever?" And his observation made me ponder, yes, why do we say those kinds of things?

All adults are guilty of crying out, "Oh, Sam! I can't believe how tall you are!" We may not have seen someones child in years or maybe just months. And it seems a natural observation to make, for in our mind's eye they are frozen at toddlerhood, or maybe third grade, or perhaps as an awkward adolescent. Now imagine them spouting back: "I'm tall Mrs. Evans because you're just getting shorter with age." What?! It could happen.

Kids usually don't know quite how to respond to our preoccupation with their bodily maturation. They will smile politely, with maybe a hint of a blush. Just as we did when we were younger. As the adult, we mistake that slight pinkening of the cheeks as modesty or even pride. But if you think back to when you were the recipient of those verdicts of appearance, the hot cheeks may have been more accurately a result of the snippy comeback we were saying to ourselves. Like, "Geez lady, no duh!"

Can you imagine a kid making some of the following analysis of us: "Holy crap, Mrs. Evans! You've gotten so many wrinkles since I saw you last; you're really getting older;" "Look at that belly pouch Mr. Evans. Guess that's what your 40's will do;" or "I can't believe you're 50! How did that happen?"

And turnabout is fair play in other ways. We love to squeeze a chubby baby's cheeks or legs. So what if a 12 -year-old we hadn't seen since infancy grabbed onto our triceps and cooed, "Look at those chubby arms. They're so cute!"

Then there are the comments we make, innocently, that teens - probably girls in particular - take the wrong way. On the occasion of my daughter Jessie's 14th birthday I cried, "You're getting so big!"

"Big?!" she wailed. "Are you saying that I've gotten fat?"

"No! No! It's just an expression," I stammered. "You know... it just means you're not a little girl anymore... not my baby." And I can't win with these observations, because when I mentioned last week that it looked as though she was getting skinnier, she spat back the whole so-you-think-I-was-fat-before thing. "That's not what I was implying," I began and then just shrugged and stopped while I was ahead. Well, not ahead, but inserting foot into mouth more didn't seem appetizing.

It just seems impossible not to chirp to a 13-year-old boy that you didn't recognize him because he's turning into a young man. I was in good company with those sort of remarks during a recent baseball evaluation, when several of us moms lamented aloud that little boy's faces were morphing into men's before our very eyes.

"Is that Justin?;" "That can't be Chris, he's not that tall!;" and "Who is that? No! How can that be Ryan?"

Their faces begin to fill out, becoming more chiseled, less adorable and decidedly handsome. Suddenly, we parents have gone from patting a boy on top of his head, to patting his shoulder, to finally a light punch in the arm because the head and shoulders are head and shoulders above us. The objects of our gushing, prodding and disbelief chuckle inside while slowly backing away from the crazy old people.

Yes, of course, time marches on. Children grow up, grow older; while adults just do the growing older part.

I leave you with two quotes:

"It kills you to see them grow up. But I guess it would kill you quicker if they didn't." ~Barbara Kingsolver

"There are only two things a child will share willingly - communicable disease and his mother's age." ~ Dr. Benjamin Spock

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Did You Ever Think You'd Say...?

For no reason in particular, I have been looking back at my 25 years of being a parent and I cannot believe the words and phrases that have jumped from my lips over the years in this job. I have also acted in ways and performed duties that I never, ever pictured myself doing pre-motherhood.

I mean ask yourself: When you were a free-wheeling single person, hip or edgy, did you ever think you would one day say "poopie?" As in, "Honey, did you make a poopie in your pants?" or "Don't touch the poopie!" Back when you used the F-bomb as a noun, adjective, verb and adverb at will, could you have guessed you would be using the "P" word as a noun, adjective, verb or adverb dozens of times a day? For years?! But there you are, or were. And if you are well beyond needing to employ that word in your daily vocabulary, don't get complacent about that fact. Because one day you will be a grandparent when your former poopie-provider begets one of their own, and you will need to pitch in when the child's nether regions explode.

When you were first married, perhaps mulling over the idea of becoming a parent, did you ever watch seemingly intelligent adults carrying their infants around on their hips and asking them -
usually in a high-pitched voice - the following kinds of questions: "Should we buy this bread?" or "Mommy wants a coffee... do you think mommy should get a coffee?" or "Daddy wants to go to the car wash now. What do you think? What do you think?" And when you observed this, did you wonder why these parents were asking a bald, toothless, drooling tiny person their opinion? Did they really think the baby was going to pipe up with an answer, like, "No, no bread. You really need to cut back on the carbs, mom." You may have smugly promised yourself not to ever engage in that kind of insane banter. And then inexplicably found yourself having a million such conversations with your own infant and toddler: "Mommy's going to check her email now... do you want to watch? Do you? Do you?" The kid's a captive audience, and it's an excellent way to not appear like a crazy person talking to yourself; people look and see that you are actually speaking to a baby, so on a very odd level it's acceptable. Even if the questions and statements directed at said baby are well beyond that small being's comprehension. For the life of me, I never pictured myself as one of those parents who would be sniffing their teenage son or daughter from stem to stern. Like a hunting dog. "Come here," I say when my kid gets home from a night out. I start with the hair sniff, then work south demanding they open their mouth so I can take a whiff, trying to determine if there is alcohol or smoke - nicotine-tinged or sweet - on their breath. I breathe deep of their clothes for the same odors. I look ridiculous and trust me, my kids agree. But you have to do it, am I right? The same way -- going back to the beginning of this column - you have to actually pick your child up, or kneel at their tush - and thrust your nose onto the hind-end of their pants to smell if there has been an "accident." Same sort of theory when they're teens. If a mess is there, you have to clean it up. Unknowingly wearing vomit on your shoulder; standing in the chilly spring rain to watch your nine-year-old play baseball; hiding tiny teeth in your sock drawer; blotting chocolate off your child's face with your own saliva; going from rocking out to the Allman Brothers to the Jonas Brothers, or eating out of a jar of pureed bananas to show a wee one how it's done... these are just some of the things we may never expect we will do before becoming a parent. Yet, we do and we are. And just as we never pictured ourselves uttering what we do, touching things we normally would have no business touching, we also may not have counted on being able to love another human being with depth that we bestow upon our child. It almost makes up for those years of smelling things we hoped never to have smelled. Almost.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Courage is fear that has said its prayers."
Encourage your child to be brave, to be passionate about goals; to hope for a dream.

The Cool Mom

I am not the "cool mom," at least not consistently. I think that I would like to be, although sometimes the "cool mom" is in reality more the aloof, "do-what-you-want-kids," lax disciplinarian mom. Considered "cool" by kids' standards, but often quite "un-cool" by other parents.

I overheard Jess and some friends talking about a party where there was indeed a parent present - a mother. I'm sure the teens parents felt reassured that the mom would police the kids to make sure no surreptitious drinking went on. However, perhaps in attempt to endear herself to the young guests, she told the half-dozen or so 15-year-old kids that they could drink, but just not "get wasted." I gasped upon hearing about this irresponsible insanity. "What a cool mom!" someone exclaimed. "My mom isn't that cool," another lamented. I wondered how neat they would have thought it was if one of the party attendees had gotten alcohol poisoning and the perceived cool mom had been arrested.

I wish our house was the kind that kids all wanted to come over to (though certainly not for the above reasons; God forbid!). No, I mean a destination that meant fun toys and apparatus, electronics and entertainment devices. I certainly see it as such, especially when compared to the house that I grew up in, and even the previous house we owned in New Canaan a scant four years ago. I recall being very excited that this new house boasted a finished basement, large playroom, including a bathroom attached; whoa! How decadent. But to my dismay, my bratty younger two have never entirely seen it that way. "It's gross," pronounced Jess when she was in seventh grade.

We have a trampoline in the back yard, a huge side yard where Jack and his sporty cohorts could have football and baseball games, plus a swimming pool. The basement features foosball and pool tables, an indoor plastic basketball hoop thing, and various video game systems. What more could a kid want, I ask? Well, according to Jack, we need an open space to play rug hockey like the trappings of his friend Eamon's basement (whose home is deemed the "cool house").
I believe Jack suffers from playroom envy. He has also complained about the television set in our playroom. So even though his dad recently won a nice sized flat screen in a raffle and replaced the offending t.v., the rec room is still not snazzy enough. Eamon's (or Drew's) is the place to be. I am always apologizing to their moms that we aren't reciprocating, but not for my lack of trying to convince Jack that it is the polite thing to do.

While Jess was in middle school our house was the go-to sleepover pad and I enjoyed getting to know her friends on a weekly basis. For one year Jess's bedroom was a very good-sized room above our garage and off the kitchen - the other side of the house from the master bedroom - so she could have the noisy nights, nab junk food at will, and we didn't have to keep imploring the gals to keep it down. So we were cool.

Perhaps a cool mom - or dad - is one who can be accessible not only to their child, but to their child's friends; not a buddy, but an easy-to-relate-to, trustworthy adult. I remember and cherish the couple of mothers of my girlfriends to whom I could confide concerns about my own mother, boyfriends, long-term wishes and goals. And yeah, a hip parent may also be the one that lets the sixth grader watch a PG-13 movie, stocks their pantry with Gushers and Oreos, offers a can of Coke over a juice box, or treats a gaggle of eighth grade girls to manicures and a meal in town unsupervised after dark. These lenient allowances may get them temporarily into hot water with the more conservative parent, but they aren't illegal, highly questionable actions.

So for now the place to hang out after-school is Eamon's and Drew's. I will embrace that fact because I think the boy's moms - Eileen and Robin, respectively - are pretty cool in and of themselves. I hope our playroom, our house, will be a draw again. My cupboards are stocked, my fridge overfloweth with soda. And in the spring, if you see me cruising around town in my convertible with a kid in every seat, please feel free to shout: "Well aren't you the cool mom!"

Friday, February 06, 2009

When a Child Grows Into (or Out of) Their Name

Pop and television star Miley Cyrus - who was born Destiny Hope Cyrus – legally changed her name several months back to: Miley Ray Cyrus. Her nickname as a child was “Smiley,” which was then shortened to “Miley.” At the ripe old age of 15, she decided to chuck the “Destiny Hope.” This move in part prompted my own 15-year-old daughter to change her name this summer. But not legally. No way.

When perusing a baby name book nearly 16 years ago, my husband and I came upon the name “Jessie.” Not “Jessica” but “Jessie;” it was its own listing. The definition of which included the fact that in Scotland, Jessie is the nickname for “Janet.” My husband’s grandmother was named Janet and she was, in fact, a Scot. So although we preferred Jessie we thought it was the hand of fate and family to officially name her Janet. But call her Jessie or Jess. Stay with me here… Until she started kindergarten at age five, she was known far and wide as Jess. But there were a lot of Jessica’s running around the playground by then, so to avoid confusion, we began to call her by her given name, as did the school, friends and family members. Except for me and her oldest brother Blake. We couldn’t shake the moniker Jess. So for 10 years, my daughter has seemingly been the only “Janet” under the age of 40, which has been kind of unique.

In early July, my kid asked me if she could legally change her name to “Jess Evans.” When I queried “why” she said that “Janet Evans” has been done already (referring to former Olympic swimming gold medalist Janet Evans), and that Jess Evans sounded like a good stage name. Let me be clear here – my daughter is not on the verge of becoming a famous actress, at least not yet. So while putting the kibosh on the legal action, I happily informed her boarding school, summer camp and family far and wide of her decision. Of course old habits die hard – as they did for Blake and me – and Jon and Jack are currently struggling with the name transition. (Poor Jack, 12, has known her as “Janet” his entire life!)

As they grow, children often prefer to be known as the shorter or longer version of their given names. “Mike’s” morph into “Michael’s” and vice versa. “Katherine’s” may go for the jauntier “Kat” as a teen, and then turn back to Katherine once they begin a career. I had a friend growing up whose name was/is: Mary Frances Gannon. We all called her Mary until high school when she impulsively decided she wanted everybody to call her “Fran.” A boyfriend after college had always been known by his middle name, “Tyler,” but when he became a police officer he felt his first name “Donald” sounded tougher.

Once people get to know me, “Julie” is shortened to “Jul” or “Jules.” During my sophomore year in high school I tried writing “Jules Butler” on the top page of assignments, but it didn’t take. Like my daughter, I asked my parents about legally changing my name and received the same answer she did (don’t you cringe when you hear your parents’ voices echoing in your own?). There were some teachers who – like my pals – called me Jules anyway, but I could never get it in print. Ah well.

I drove Jess up to her boarding school a couple of weeks ago and she was thrilled upon arrival to pick up her student identification card with the name “Jess Evans” boldly imprinted on it. She began this school half way through her freshman year last January, so she is still fairly new. And the name change has given her the feeling and attitude of a fresh start. She was beaming as I drove away as her roommate cried out “Jess! I’ve missed you!”

I don’t know if one day down the line she’ll revert back to being called Janet; that’s her call. But she knows she’s really always been – and will forever be - my Jess.

Friday, January 30, 2009

When Mom's Fashions Become Daughter's Fashions

A couple of weeks ago my daughter Jess was wearing my favorite sweatshirt. "Take it off," I ordered of the garment that is as old as she is - 15 - worn and soft, with holes and tears both big and small. She was leaving in a few minutes to go back to boarding school. "I'll take it off when I get to my room and give it to daddy," she promised. "That's crazy!" I cried. "You just want to wear it to ride in a car?! Take it off now!" No dice.

Do you know why she didn't take it off, parental order and pulling on the sweatshirt notwithstanding? Because she had every intention of stealing it. I knew this, as this was hardly the first time I had discovered an article of my clothing or a pair of my shoes stuffed into her duffel bag. I also understood that she was hoping to distract her father upon arrival at her dorm, therefore my beloved and fragile sweatshirt would remain in her custody. I'm no fool, no fool at all. I've known this person for nearly 16 years; I am well-acquainted with the way she operates. And so I let her leave home thinking she was going to be successful in kidnapping my most prized apparel. I kept phoning my husband every hour of the three-hour drive reminding him to nab the finery. Once I figured they were safely back on campus, I phoned her: "Hand it over." Click. Mission accomplished.

Once upon a time she was wee and I could dress her at will, not to mention buy the fashions in which I desired to see her attired. I would lay her outfits out the night before school, the form looking like a headless and hand less figure, lying sprawled and creepy on the floor. Of course, and sort of expectantly, as she carried on through elementary school she began to develop her own tastes, some of which gave me pause. There was the Limited, Too and Abercrombie phase: tight jeans, leggings, tiny t-shirts and camisoles. Camisoles! Most of her girlfriends dressed the same; it seemed an unspoken dress code among the fourth and fifth grade set. But camisoles! Cut low enough to a point where a few years later there would actually be something there to make the neckline objectionable to parents (although 12 year-old boys and older didn't find the look risque). The fashions for 10 year olds looked uncannily like those of a 16-year-old. They still do.

"Back in the day" girls looked like, well, girls. Public school dress expectations were strict: we could not wear pants - or heaven forbid blue-jeans - until high school. Once we hit freshman year things loosened up a bit. Well, quite a bit for me actually as it was the 1970's. After years of buttons and bows all hell broke loose and as 14 year olds we let fly as if shot from a fashion cannon. So although I make Jess do the fingertip test to ensure skirts are not obscenely short, my friends and I sported "short-shorts" and micro-minis. I also hypocritically object to and often tug up on those darned camies when in fact we were somehow allowed to wear midriff shirts and halter tops (bra-less, naturally)! But I digress...

Jess caught up to me feet first. By eighth grade we were - and remain to this day - the same shoe size. Initially my heels would go missing, yet only briefly, as the art of walking in such footwear would take practice to perfect. I'd reach into the downstairs closet to grab my pair of Uggs only to discover that they were at that moment waltzing through the middle school. On a bad hair morning I would rifle though a drawer for a headband and find it too had decided to hop on the school bus. Mascaras, eyeliners, and blush would turn up missing. Then this past summer she began rifling through my tops and by autumn, my sweaters. Our pant sizes are only one apart (much to her horror and my glee at having lost weight), so I'm safe at least in that department.

Last night she ambled downstairs in a pair of my pajamas. Pajamas! Mommy jammies!

"What the heck?" I inquired both dumbfounded and amused. She just grinned and plopped herself down on the couch beside me. She leaned into me and cuddled. Aww. My little girl: My size in all respects. We have met in the middle for now, before I give in, grow up and
start dressing my age, and she begins to assert her own style to a greater extent. For now, however, we seem to agree that love is in fashion.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Is Ignorance Really Bliss Where Our Kids are Concerned?

The adage "ignorance is bliss" is true, to an extent. If I never knew what questionable actions my children had and have engaged in, if I believed in what they tried to pass off as truths, if I firmly believed that my angels were actually angels... Well, I would be blissfully happy. Perhaps I would be sporting no grey hairs, barely visible worry creases between my eyes, nor nagging headaches. I'd be content, peaceful and serene 24/7. I would also be a certifiable fool. And as my kids can well attest, I do not suffer fools gladly.

There is another cliche: "Nobody's perfect." I most certainly am not; not as a woman, a wife or as a mother. I was recently introduced on a local news channel as "knowing how to successfully raise children." I cringed mightily inside and had to choke back tears. "Successfully?!" When I watched the tape later with my family, I had to pause the segment after hearing those words again, excuse myself briefly, and go into the bathroom to weep. Does "successful" mean your kid never screws up? What exactly is the criteria for being "successful" as a parent? It is too large a concept for me to wrap my head around. Because not only am I not perfect, but my children are not as well. Everybody - absolutely everybody in this world - makes mistakes. Some are small, tiny, maybe imperceptible, and others are loud and bold and not easily forgivable, nor forgotten. I teared up because my kids have orchestrated their own missteps and sometimes I feel as if I might have been asleep at the wheel, or wasn't the proper role model, or assumed the best when the worst is always possible.

I had a friend in Weston who once wondered why, one by one, her nine-year-old son's friends began to decline playdates - myself included - though I never brought myself to completely cut her son out of my boy's life. Her son was a bully of sorts, whining when he didn't get his own way and prone to pushing when frustrated. If I recall, one mother had tried letting her know what was going on, gently of course, but I'm not sure if my friend brought herself to fully recognize or believe that could possibly be true. Perhaps you can see yourself in that scenario. Or maybe once your daughter was in middle school you figured she was coming home weepy due to the "mean girl syndrome," when in reality, she was the mean girl and the others were excluding her because of it. Getting to the bottom of what may actually be going on with your child, with the help of the school or friend's parents, I have found to be helpful.

I have heard rumors of, or actually witnessed, teen offspring of friends smoking cigarettes or drinking, and when their parents and I have discussed in generality such behaviors they are convinced that their son or daughter would never indulge themselves in these activities. I too have been thoroughly convinced of my own kids' innocence in such matters, until tips were offered from close friends. Though bliss was preferred a seed was nevertheless planted, I became suspicious, did some investigating, and lo and behold unhealthy and/or and unattractive experimentation was in fact part of reality. I was horrified, aghast - choose any synonym. The truth I am choosing to believe is that it has ceased. I'm no dummy though, and vigilance will continue. Another expression leaps to mind: "Once burned, twice shy." it applies to both me and my sons/daughter.

It is painful, though, not to trust your child completely. The lie can can leap out of the four-year-old's mouth: "No mommy I did not take this pack of gum from the grocery store" (when clearly a four-year-old does not boast a wallet full of cash); to an 11-year-old firmly telling you that the t.v. screen must have cracked on its own, in spite of the baseball bat lying carelessly at his feet, to your 18-year-old insisting that he is not drinking alcohol when confronted with empty beer cans discovered under his bed. What - did the beer bunny leave them there? The untruths can be head-spinningly astounding. "Just tell me the truth," I implore of them. "The consequences of lie upon lie are less - or even non-existent - if you tell me the truth." Accidents happen. So do spectacular lapses in judgment. The truth can often set you free.

And yes, the truth can hurt the parent. Upon learning of something uncomfortable, from a broken vase to a broken curfew, I have sat myself firmly upon the pity pot. I have cried for the unknown something I might have done better. I have cried for them and for the price they pay if the incident or indiscretion has harmed them in some way physically, socially or emotionally. This is not to say that my children are "bad" for they most certainly are not. Just as their dad and I slipped and fell during our time before them, so have and so shall they. The fact that mistakes are inevitable makes a parent feel helpless: We want to protect and to shield. We want bliss. We do not wish to be guilty-by-association. We want to believe that we have raised a straight edge child. Does it mean that we have failed if they occasionally flail?

Was I a happier camper when more freshly ignorant while raising my first-born? In the words of Sarah Palin, "You betcha!" But child by child my innocence has been chipped away, much like their own. Nobody expects to be disappointed or disillusioned, but it is part of the job description of "parent."

I'm not going to quit my job -- my "employees" are too precious. The bliss comes from having them in my life, warts and all.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

A Tall Tale: When Your Kids Sprout Up

Height happens.

Within the past two months, I have noticed that I am somehow eye-to-eye with my baby. Okay, so the baby is 12 years old. And his two brothers before him were beyond my eye level when they were his age. But still... How did I manage to become the shortest person in the house? Wait. I'm not exactly; my daughter is one inch shorter than me, and if I am to believe her pediatrician, at age 15 Jess has reached her adult height. Whew! Nevertheless...

There is something a bit disconcerting about having a child tower above you. For many years I was the towering presence: the grown-up, the authority figure, the "I'm-bigger-than-you-are" guy. When your kid suddenly sprouts up and you are literally knocking foreheads with him, well, it's a milestone of a different sort. It's not really a warm and fuzzy, get out the camera, lump-in-your-throat milestone. Maybe lump-in-your-throat because you ascertain that your baby is baby in concept only. But as I said up front, I have been on the south side of height with a child before, and it's just plain weird. it begs the question: "Can my child still look up to me without looking up at me?"

The answer to that is both yes and no. Why both? Easy -- Because when a child suddenly grow inches in stature, they are in the throes of adolescence, which
by nature means that they probably aren't going to "look up to" their parent on the more constant basis that they did before they began growing into their shoe size. You can still be - and are - their role model in many ways. They know in their heart-of-hearts that you are the boss, but being teens or teens-in-training, their job is to question, question, question and push the envelope every which way that they can. It doesn't really matter if you are shorter or taller than them at this point, this is just what they do. However, if you are vertically-challenged by them it is a bit dicier to cut the figure of the hero. Blake was a six-footer when he started high school, and six-foot-two when he graduated. I am a lofty five-foot, four-and-half inches (need to get that half inch in there). He thought - and still thinks on occasion - that because we hover in different atmospheres that he is the one in charge; the smarter, better one. How annoying was this during high school? In order to put him in his place, so to speak, I would make him sit down, so we were on a level playing field, and assure him that in fact I was still the parent. "Just because you're bigger, doesn't make you better," I'd say firmly. "I still have time and experience on my side, so cool it!" Due to carrying such a heavy pack during his Iraq deployments, he has actually lost an inch or two, but clearly I still need to crane my neck to have a conversation with him when he is at home. And even though he knows I am the parent, he still finds great joy in picking me up like a worthless rag doll if I stray toward lecture mode. Fair enough, I guess, but I do miss my dignity for those few seconds. What seems not fair, though, is how stealth the growing taller process is for children. It's insidious. One day you are kissing the top of their head as they run out the door, the next day it's their nose, and the next... their chin or their chest! They are wearing your clothes, they are borrowing their father's shoes, they are accidentally hitting their heads on the car door when they duck inside for a ride. "No! No!" I want to cry. "Stop it! I want you to grow up, but not... grow up!" Get more mature, more responsible; I can emotionally handle that. But grinning at me from several inches above my grin? Now just hold on a minute! My mother - who remained taller than me, but shorter than my brother - used to jokingly tell him that he was "not too old or too big to spank" when he was sassy to her. I used that line on Jack the other day, to which he replied all five-foot-four-y: "Yeah? You gotta catch me first!" Curses! Foiled again.