Accountability Anyone?

Published in the Ferndale Record, January 28, 2015

Last week a parent called my school office. He asked what time his son had PE and I told him. He said this:

“He forgot his PE clothes today and I was going to try and get them there before his class, but I can’t make it. Guess he’ll just have to remember to bring them next time. How will he ever learn this stuff if I do it for him?”

Thank you, sir, and well done.

Children don’t magically learn accountability, and they certainly don’t learn it when they’re constantly bailed out by a well meaning but misguided parent. I see this happen a lot.

You want children to succeed and you want to help where you can – always. But what you don’t want to do is take away their personal responsibility or live in fear that if you don’t do everything they ask, you’ll be unpopular and invite rebellion. Rebellion will happen no matter what you do. You’re going to have to trust me on this.

When one of my children was in high school, he had an extraordinarily hard time with morning wake up. He was in an early class and had to be out the door before 6:30am. It was common to hear his alarm blaring for 30 minutes before he turned it off, if he did at all.

I dutifully rousted him almost every day. I had things to do, too, but first on the list was getting him on his way. After months of this, I hated it and more importantly, realized he needed to learn the skills I was providing for him. I told him I wouldn’t be waking him up anymore.

One day I didn’t do it. His music came on loud and he slept. I got up, ready for work and left the house. Around 9:30am, he called my work place and said, “What just happened?” He mentioned what time it was, and asked why I hadn’t awakened him. I calmly invited him to remember the conversation we’d had. He wanted me to come take him to school because he simply couldn’t miss it. I told him I couldn’t because I was working. When he asked me what he was going to do, I said, “Figure it out.” He was furious.

But things eventually got better, like they always do when you require a child to do something important.

A 5-year-old appeared in my office and with a factual lilt in his voice announced, “I pooped my pants.”

To help those who come to me with such problems, I keep a drawer full of clean clothes and plastic bags. I also don’t ask a lot of questions. I give them what they need and send them to the nearest bathroom where they do the work. It happened twice to this little one during the week, and both times he was forthcoming, open and ready to take responsibility.

A few days later he brought me a homemade card. A crude drawing on the front was difficult to decipher, but I soon learned it was a pair of underpants. The sentiment on the inside was one of thanks for helping him. It was signed with Xs and Os.

Responsibility, accountability and gratitude: learn early, practice often.

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Tales Of A Recovering Hyper Over-Enthusiast

Published in The Ferndale Record, March 27, 2013

I used to be ‘that’ mother. The one that yelled the loudest from the stands for her kid on the field, the one that clapped and hooted vigorously after every child’s performance, the one that gushed and cooed over every ‘participant’ ribbon my children brought through the door. 

When it was a trophy or winning award, the air oozed with gusto that could easily suffocate everyone else in the room. Exceptional examples of schoolwork or first numbers scrawled on a napkin were stuck onto the refrigerator for months.

Everyone knows parents who fall into the hyper-enthusiastic category. I thought prolonged cheerleading was how one motivated offspring, and didn’t know any other way to express the abundance I felt.

Then some time ago I discovered how embarrassing my antics had been to one of my children. This cut deep and hard. In the name of encouragement and parental zeal, I’d humiliated one I love.

I used to be ‘that’ mother, and inside my heart of hearts, I still am. I’ve toned it down, which is not a natural state for me, but curiously, especially as the mother of adult children, it’s revealing. Maybe it’s simple maturity or something like it, but robust hollering from the sidelines has been replaced with perspective and gratitude.

Recently, my son and daughter-in-law invited me to Boston for a visit. I got to spend a few days with their family, see them in their natural habitat, and observe the life they’ve built since their move from Seattle last summer.

The entire trip could have been me shouting from the stands. “Oh, this is wonderful! I love this house! What adorable children you have! This city is amazing! WOO HOO!” I could hear it all rumbling around in my soul. When we drove past Fenway Park, I’ll admit to a somewhat sedated outburst. I just couldn’t help it.

Then, right before the flight back to Seattle, I visited my son’s office on the 14th floor with a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. I saw his name on the door and felt that tug again—the one that wants to gush.

I saw the pictures of family on his shelves, the awards he’s earned, and quite suddenly I felt like he’d just brought his first finger painting home from kindergarten. Only this time, I had no words, no overwhelming ebullience to express. It caught in my throat, and the only thing I could feel was joy.

As he drove me to the airport I told him what a great job I thought he was doing with his family, his life, and that it was lovely to witness. He laughed and said something like, “And this from a mother who thinks everything I do is great!”

“No,” I told him, “It’s more than that. You love your wife and children and they love you. Your kids feel safe and want to be with you. You are building a happy life. I’m telling you I can see that.”

I’ve figured out that it’s not so much about me being a frenzied proponent as it is about loving without agenda, guile and ego. When I do that, my tendency to emote gets swallowed up in pure joy.

I still bubble over occasionally and probably always will. But there’s more satisfaction in subdued observation than I ever would have thought. Gravy days for sure!

Six Things Parents Of Teenagers Need To Know

Published in The Ferndale Record,  April 11, 2012

OK, there are more than six, but this list is streamlined, and in no essential order. Things change hourly with teenagers, and what’s number one on Tuesday might be nowhere near the list on Friday.

Also, I’m not an expert at anything, except maybe napping. However, I couldn’t help learning a couple of things along the way. Consider the following:

1. Food. Have a lot of it around. Always. Make sure it’s something they like and buy more of it than you could possibly think you’d ever need. The teenager, especially a male, seems to require unfathomable amounts of sustenance.

A parent may decide, “From now on we’re only going to eat healthy food in our house.”  I’ve done this.  In short, be prepared for your offspring to find other feeding grounds. They may be kind (or surly) and try the new stuff, but they want what they want. Carrots, celery and apples go only so far. Also, remember their friends will be at your house, too, often for days at a time. It’s unlikely you will ever have too much food on hand, ever. And what you do have will disappear at an alarming rate.

2. You never know. You may make it your life’s mission to know what, why, where, when, how and who concerning your teenager. But the truth is, you never know everything. The sooner a parent accepts this, the better equipped they are to handle the really rough times. You’ll know what they let you know, and outside of clever detective work, it’s doubtful you’ll know everything they do, or everyone they’re with. Accept the fact you can’t be in charge of all of it. They get to choose. It’s part of the master plan.

3. Lock your bedroom and bathroom doors. I learned the uncomfortable way that seeing one’s parents in underwear (or less) only confuses already weird feelings in a teenager. As an adolescent, it played with my head a little when I saw my mom or dad in undies.  Twelve to 18-year-olds especially don’t like to think of parents as people with lives and feelings, and well, underpants. Just lock the door.

4. Don’t take things personally. These sub-adult creatures will probably say horrible things. They’ll say they hate you and worse. They’ll lie and look good doing it. They’ll promise you anything and deliver nothing. The worst thing a parent can do is believe this is who that child really is. You’ll be tempted because a 15-year-old with attitude can be astonishingly convincing. But, and this is the hard part, let your anger and frustration drop to the ground and roll away like Skittles. You’re the grown-up—they’re not.

5. You know when they say, “You don’t understand!”?  We really don’t. We understand what it was like for us, and while that has value, it’s not definitive. Parents like to think it is. Our children are growing up in a society that 20 years ago was unimaginable. They’re faced with burdens we can’t know. Maybe our best response when they say this to us, and if they haven’t yet, they will, is “You’re right. I don’t. How can I help?”

6. Expect goodness. Children will do “bad” things sometimes. They balk at requests, chores, authority, and clean underwear. They are individuating and trying to figure it all out. But their innate goodness is overwhelming. Teach them appropriate behavior and start again. Second chances are underrated. Look for everything good—grades, positive behavior, reliability, kindness, and let your compliments flow. Expect it all, but especially the good. It’s there for the taking.

Following Their Lead

Published in The Ferndale Record, March 14, 2012

One of the most astonishing things about being a parent is how I learn from my children. I always thought I’d be the one dishing up the inspiration: They would assemble at my feet, riveted in starry-eyed wonder while I imparted the wisdom of years and experience.

What actually happens is we sit at the dining room table during a family celebration, or lounge around in our jammies tossing out ideas and family stories. We chat. We share. And unlike my fantasy, I’m almost never the center of attention—in fact, I learn more when I’m not.

I watch, hear and ask questions. I’m the one zeroed in with rapt attention, realizing at every turn in the conversation how lucky I am to be associated with such a diverse crew. Each one has authentic style, and I catch myself listening on purpose. Here are a few nuggets from the past couple of years:

*An employer just wants you to get the job done. Be clear about what’s expected and ask questions. Then, pull the trigger. No rambling excuses, no drama. Be exceptionally good at what you do.

*Own who you are. Do whatever it takes to be comfortable in your own skin. What others think isn’t important. What matters is to dream big, work hard and get out of your own way. Help others on the same path.

*Live with gusto. Jump out of that plane! Spend money on that trip you’ve always wanted to take! Swing from that chandelier! Stay up all night talking and playing games. Lose sleep over living your life. You can sleep when you’re dead.

*People matter. Do what it takes to let them know they’re important to you, even if it causes scary pangs of discomfort—especially if it does. Anguish for acts left undone will come back to you if you don’t deal with them.

*Let passion reign. Being cool all the time is overrated. If you love something, you know it immediately. If you don’t, it will disappear from your radar. There’s something honest and clean about the transparency of wearing feelings out loud. It shows others, without question, where you stand.

In one of my favorite photographs, I’m a young mother in skinny bellbottom jeans, and a red, white and blue striped t-shirt, seated on the ground at Cornwall Park in Bellingham, Washington on a summer afternoon. My children and I had just spent the day picnicking with friends, and it was time to go home.

I’m tying shoes onto the tiny, wet feet of my three-year-old daughter. She’s dressed in a sun suit that ties at the shoulders, her wavy hair in pigtails.

I love this picture on several levels—both my daughter and I are quite adorable, we don’t know the photo is being taken, and my little one is studying me, watching closely, learning how adults are in the world. Every time I look at this image, I see the reversal of roles, how these days I’m often the one looking up to her and our growing family.

Finding valuable insights is easy. Websites are littered with them; self-help books are downloaded in seconds. But how utterly spectacular is it to learn good stuff from the people you love most?

And Just Like That, It’s Over

Published in The Ferndale Record, June 8, 2011

It’s interesting how the big build-up to something is usually more painful than the actual “something.”  Except maybe childbirth.

I’ve known for eighteen years that this particular month was coming and now that it’s here, I notice something I didn’t expect—it’s not so bad. Yet.

My youngest child graduates from high school in a couple of weeks. There’s still a lot for him to accomplish before he turns eighteen years old at the end of June and tensions are at their peak. I’ll be grateful if we simply make it through up-coming days without a major incident—like circling each other in a bloody death match.

I figure my job is to straddle that precarious line between me jumping in to wrap up everything he needs to get done and pretending I don’t care. Mostly I stand back and offer support.

He’s so ready for the next phase of his life. Any parent that’s lived under the same roof with a graduating high school senior knows the feeling.

On the way to a drop off for a two-day trip with his senior class, I told him I knew how much he’d miss me and be homesick, but to stay strong and try to enjoy himself anyway. He barely cracked a smile and when we pulled up to the waiting vans he almost bailed out before I stopped the car.

I didn’t take it personally.

The boy takes classes at Whatcom Community College and has a bunch of other responsibilities and friends that keep him occupied. Lately I’ve realized that after work, there’s no one waiting at home wondering where I am.

At first, I was a little sad about this. Then, out of nowhere, I loved it. I keep thinking I’m the one who’s eighteen and I’ve just moved out of my parent’s house. I make dinner when I want it, or not at all. I come home when I’m ready. And no one is tapping toes and looking at the clock in anticipation. I decided that if I were really in trouble, someone would care. I know people.

And letting go of the boy? Someone told me once that teenagers are supposed to be annoying, defiant, and obnoxious so that when the time comes for them to leave home it won’t be hard for parents to say goodbye.

I know the drill. I know about individuation and defying authority. But this is the absolute truth: No matter how difficult those times have been, I’ve never felt like celebrating when a child left home. I’ve been lucky, I guess.

What’s different this time is me. Before, there was always another child waiting in the wings, needing me like young children need responsible adults. There were school supplies to buy, lunches to make, dirty clothes to wash, and booboos to kiss.

Not this time. And oddly enough, I’m OK with that.

Of course, being a parent is never officially “over.” But those first eighteen years are—often in what seems like a moment. The day he was born doesn’t feel like that long ago.

This time it’s not just me giving birth to a new life—it’s both of us.

Rainbows, Pigtails, And Second Chances

Published in The Ferndale Record, May 11, 2011

My daughter has always been a pistol—passionate, and a cyclonic force of nature. It started with her birth, played with my head when she was a child, and continued through her stormy youth. Now that she’s an adult, it’s one of the things I admire most about her. No, I cherish it.

One day when she was six years old and I was occupied with something domestic that felt urgent, she yelled “Mom! Come quick!”  I hesitated, only because, well, six year olds exaggerate and how important could it be?

But a Divine nudge sent me to find her. She was looking out our dining room window, thick, wavy hair to her waist, and in her raspy, somewhere-between-tiny-and-little-girl-voice, she was bubbling over: “Look at the rainbow!”

This is still who she is.

A couple of months ago their country farmhouse sold, and my daughter, her 13-year-old son, a dog and a cat moved in with the boy and me. We’d talked about joining forces for a while, and the prospect of having her under the same roof with me again was sublime.

She left home when she was sixteen and I felt robbed. But in the fiery crucible of that experience, I learned, even though I didn’t like it, she had to leave us. I longed to have her near, close to my heart and home. She needed to be somewhere else. That letting go would end up being a determining factor in our ongoing relationship.

Our life now is something I couldn’t have imagined all those years ago. It’s as sweet as pie.

I love that her personality is all over our property. From her wind chimes on the front porch to the invisible dog fence she buried in the back yard. She fixed up her brother’s old bedroom into a cozy retreat for herself and the animals. She also makes better meals for her son than I do for mine, and it’s not unusual to walk into our house greeted by the glorious fragrance of whatever she’s making for dinner that night.

She’s a musician and I get to hear her practice. Her presence here also marks the first time in thirty years that plants have been kept alive longer than two weeks in my home. I love that her pets not only recognize me but also seem to kind of like me. I love that my grandson and my boy hang out together and have unknowingly constructed that amenable, drama-less, funkily pungent atmosphere one can only find in the home of teenage boys.

Sometimes my thirty-something daughter wears her hair in pigtails or braids and I shoot her a look she recognizes immediately. It’s that one where I’m imagining her as that little girl at the dining room window again. She kindly smiles and gives me a moment to wax nostalgic.

Her humor and spirit liven up any room, and her heart and soul give back to her chosen communities and organizations. When we need to talk about something, we do. We understand that not everything is perfect and we figure it out. We get along. We are friends. I’m the lucky one here, reveling in my second chance.

I’m gushing, but every word is true, I promise.

Cap And Gown

He brought it downstairs to show me last night–a fat, blue square package wrapped in clear plastic, a blue and white tassel on top, with a metallic ’11 dangling on the side.

“It’s becoming real, isn’t it?” he said. Usually quick with the snark, I was rendered speechless. No tears either, go figure. But it was real enough.

I brushed back the hair covering his eyes and remembered for a second.. Remembered how when he was a baby and sleeping through the night, I’d go into his room and purposefully nudge him.. just enough to wake him.. so I could provide snuggles and rock him back to sleep. I knew he would be the last, and by the fifth time at bat, I also knew these moments would soon be in the wind.

Tears will come later.. much later. There will be that whole letting go business I’ve never been very good at. Plus, I anticipate a few heavy sighs of relief after a solid 35 years of raising children. But mostly, right now at least, it’s about this boy.. this moment. These last months of that true child-at-home time that’s never quite the same after they leave and come back.. Ask anyone.. it’s just not.

The cap and gown are just a representation.. but they’re stark reminders that my days, weeks and months with this one are ending. He’ll get on with his life.. the one he’s anticipated (a good thing), and  I’ll get him to myself sometimes, he’ll visit for brief periods, we’ll talk about the past, we’ll eat favorite food and joke around with each other.. but it won’t be like old times, not really.

Bittersweet, this cap and gown business..

Losing My Grip (Like I Ever Had One To Begin With)

It doesn’t happen often anymore.. so when it does, it exacts a hefty emotional toll.

The boy is leaving me.. not physically yet, but in every other way he can. Today he says “you pissed me off.” This is valid.. and I have a pretty tough skin. I can take that. But when he mentioned his dad understands him so much better than I do, it ached out loud.

Well, of course his dad gets him better than I do. They’re both male.. he’s growing up.. he needs his dad. Trouble is.. I spend more time with the boy.. and dole out most of the discipline. I’m also the one who watches SNL with him every week, takes him to school every day, expects more of him.. pops for Subway often enough, and likes to think we had a bond. Until today. Now I feel like so much pond scum.. and a little embarrassed that I ever could have thought he and I were close at all.

It’s not about me, I know. It’s about a teenager and his needs.. and I’m the adult, so I get to be the tough one. Only I don’t feel so tough right now.. only mushy.. and thinking about how this letting go business hasn’t gotten any easier, even with all the practice I’ve had.

So.. he belongs to himself.. and his dad. Me? Not so much..

The Last, First Day

Published in The Ferndale Record, September 8, 2010

[Note: Due to a teacher’s strike, school began September 14, 2010]

It’s the first day of school for Ferndale students, and I welcome it for the same reasons others do.

Back to days with more structure, brisk weather, tart apple crisps and spice cakes, new adventures and people to meet, followed closely by fat pumpkins and the staggering colors of autumn. For many of us, the start of the school year is more of a clean beginning than January 1st.

For me, this particular September comes with a higher than usual dose of nostalgia. I send the final child off for his last, first day of school. This morning will be much like last year’s beginning—the boy out the door on his own, ready to tackle his senior year and everything that means. This is a good thing.

When you’re in the middle years of sending children to school every fall, you sort of think you always will be. It becomes part of who you are. You brush your teeth, you go to work, you pay the bills, and you make sure kids get registered, oriented, loaded down with supplies, and off to school.

Then things gradually change—especially with boys. No new backpack or shiny, yellow number two pencils. No scheduled clothes shopping spree, no carefully chosen superhero lunchboxes packed with nutritious food they might eat but will probably trade or toss.  All that’s needed or wanted are last year’s notebooks, folders, and pens scrounged from a drawer, a current ASB card, and depending on the child, maybe a new pair of shoes.

While it’s weird to be at this stage in my life, after thirty-four years of raising children, it’s not so bad. The end is in sight, and the white sands and blue Mediterranean of a Greek island are hovering closer to the surface of my imagination. Sometimes I feel giddy sweetness. Possibility teems.

Besides, the boy is ready, too. Funny how it happens that way, don’t you think? We’re both facing new lives at the same time.

I followed his school bus to Kindergarten that first day, just to make sure he actually made it into his classroom. He was a runner, a pistol, and I needed to know he was safe. It’s taken years to back off, and I’m not quite through yet. But it’s getting easier—for both of us.

He is, of course, talking about his future plans and the beauty part is that for the first time ever, I’m not threatened by this. I don’t feel panic rising in my throat at the last child leaving the nest I’ve so carefully feathered all these years. It’s more than OK. It’s time.

This future life, while hopeful, is deceptively attractive at the moment. More difficult goodbyes are coming up, hard lessons, and as the months add up, I expect a wistful heaviness to settle on my soul. However, I’m also counting on some delight and joy mixed in there somewhere.

Sure, there’s the first day of college, but that’s different. He’ll be on his own, at least more than he is now. His siblings have done it and he will too. And while I cherish those years of my own June Cleaver-ish, fussing conscientiousness—he’ll be ready for the shift.

And for the first time, so will I.

She Loves Him–And That’s Enough

Published in The Ferndale Record-Journal, July 14, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, at a birthday party for another family member, my second son got down on one knee and asked his girl to marry him.  It’s a lovely moment frozen in time, and emblazoned in my memory along with the facial expressions of surrounding witnesses.

She said yes.

In one tick of the clock, he went from being my boy, to her potential husband. Yikes. Things move quickly, don’t they?

Not really. I know it wasn’t exactly like that. Their relationship built over months, and he adores her. But somehow, it feels more important to his mother, that the girl loves him. And I know she does—I can tell.

From the start, parents want nothing but joy for their children, but those pesky life problems tag along as well. So when something simply extraordinary unfolds for one of them, we rejoice.

May I suggest we also reflect, regroup, and remember that we are no longer (and probably haven’t been for a while) that child’s emotional touchstone. And that’s exactly how it should be.

When my oldest son married in 1999, it was his wife’s affection for him that saved me that day. Because of weirdness and rifts that often exist in families, and for reasons I’ll never fully understand, not one member of my extended family attended the wedding celebration. Not one.

But my new daughter-in-law’s love for her husband was palpable. After the ceremony, I hugged her tight and choked out the words, “Thank you for loving my boy.”

My heart ached, but that day wasn’t about me, or my heart. It was about the newlyweds, and I honored that, even while hoping against the odds that my family would walk through the door.

Late that evening the limousine pulled up, ready to sweep my son and his bride off on their honeymoon. The crowd pressed toward the door wishing them well, and I fell to the back. Right before exiting, my boy stopped, turned around, and found me in the masses. He came over, told me he loved me, topped it with a hug, and walked away into the rest of his life.

To say I cherish that instant would be an understatement. It’s etched in my soul.

I learned that when someone commits to and loves your child madly (even if it’s rightfully different from the way you do), it’s less painful to watch them go off into the sunset together. In fact, it’s life affirming and thrilling to watch new families form.

This, from a mother who has never been very good at letting go; a mother who’s been known to follow her child’s bus to school just to make sure he got there, and into the classroom safely.

Soon, we’ll joyously add another daughter to our clan—a luminous young woman whose best gift to me is loving my son. Each in-law and grandchild brings a new dimension to our family and defines more completely who we really are.

Uneasy experience has taught me that for children to want to come back for a visit, you’ve got to cut the whining, let them go, and do it all with a smile on your face.

For this parent, with a little help from devoted new in-laws, the smiling part is getting easier.