Tis the Season of Endings


seasons

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.  —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I have begun to refer to this past month or so as the “Season of Endings.” While it feels like this has snuck up on me, I have been staring down the barrel of this gun since last year. As the school year wrapped up in the spring of 2014, I telescoped out to the spring of 2015, imagining what it would be like to see both of my boys moving up and entering new stages of their lives. We’ve been through this before with the older one but it was a subtle ending, a minor shift of the universe as he ended his time in the secure blanket of elementary school and made his way to the middle school, embracing the roller coaster ride of adolescence and hormonal inconsistencies. It seemed like a small moment at the time because the younger one was still, seemingly, our baby and was providing a safeguard that we had a long way to go before our lives as parents would truly shift and our children would begin their not-so-slow ascent towards adulthood.

This year, both our boys will move up. The younger one finally leaving the pediatric nest of grade school and the older one beginning the final stage of his mandated academic career as he prepares to rise up to high school. I’m incredibly proud of both of them, shining stars in their own rights. And, I am surprisingly overwhelmed by how their rapid maturity and readiness to embark on their new journeys stands in stark contrast to my desire to push them back into the womb. They are navigating their journeys with confidence and competence that is equally impressive and humbling. As their mother, I struggle to strike the proper balance of nurturing support and respecting their growing boundaries. It’s an obstacle course that I trip over daily, rewarded with eye rolls, exasperated sighs and complete insolence. My older one has fine tuned his ability to tune me out and disregard my wishes while the younger one is watching carefully as his mentor blazes the trail.

For my older son, this year is transformative. As an athlete, he is moving into a much more serious period of his young athletic career. He has his eyes set on playing in college and is beginning to understand the implications and obligations that come along with that goal. He is constantly weighing his options, looking at potential outcomes and examining consequences. I wonder where he learned this and question if his father and I truly had the capacity to teach this to him when this was never ingrained in us. He is remarkable. He shared with me this week that the girl he had asked to accompany him to the 8th Grade Dinner/Dance was  just a friend because the girl he wanted to ask would be more than a friend and he didn’t want to get involved with someone who was going to be leaving for the entire summer to go to sleepaway camp. It took me a few seconds to process his comment and I had to quickly decide if I was immensely proud of the logical and mature thought process or if I was saddened by his lack of whimsy. Either way, I respect his decision and admire that he made one that he is comfortable with. I sensed no regret or disappointment. He had not settled. He made a choice and was secure in that. Wow. That just happened.

The season of endings is truly bittersweet. And, I have found, it is seeping into other areas of my life as well. As I prepare to celebrate my boys transition to the next stages of their lives, I am carefully trying to not overshadow their moment. However, I know myself well enough to realize that when life is changing beyond what I can control, I will look to control other types of changes in my life. I try to ease my discomfort with everything moving so fast and my inability to keep up with it all by focusing on the areas of my life that I can control and change at my own pace. Our lives – mine in particular – is always in a state of flux and I never sit still for too long. As I have often shared, change is both scary and exciting to me. I crave it and I try to control it. I dread it and I am wildly anticipatory of it. Like my boys, who are ready to move into new schools, make new friends and partake in new experiences, I grow antsy with the familiar, seeking out new experiences and interactions. I love the thrill of the new and the opportunities and adventures that come along with that. I love to reinvent and refresh and am always looking for ways to introduce that into my life. Whether it be a new job, a new friend, a new hairstyle or a new hobby, I am always trying to find ways to create new and interesting experiences for myself. And, like with the Season of Endings, I do this while struggling to let go of the old. I hang on, often far too long, failing to detach from what I have outgrown. My metaphorical closet is stuffed with clothes and shoes that no longer fit or are not in style.

During this Season of Endings, I commiserate with fellow parents who are bracing themselves for all kinds of new adventures as our children embark on the next leg or their journeys. We love them and support them with tears gently spilling from our eyes as the umbilical cord stretches just a little bit further, getting ready to finally split off. We watch our babies grow a little taller, talk a little deeper, walk a little faster as their little hands slip from ours and they assure us that they can cross the street on their own. We hold our breaths as they step out from the curb, trusting that we have reminded them again and again to look both ways and take care of themselves. We beam with pride as they take long strides in the crosswalk, making their way to the other side, waving proudly to reassure us that they did it. They made it all by themselves. And we weep a little more while feeling grateful and proud.

Each day that passes and I endure another element of the Season of Endings, I realize that we are quickly morphing into the Season of Beginnings. It’s a new road and a new chapter for all of us.

THE SMALLEST THINGS


the smallest thingsThere are days that I am so caught up in the mayhem of my life that I surely forget to smell the proverbial flowers.  I get lost in the chaos, mired in the struggles, am devoured by the difficulties that surround me.  I can’t find my way to all the little things, the small miracles that make life so very wonderful.

Today was one of those days.  Difficult and overwhelming and then a surprise package came at the end that reminded me of how extraordinary the smallest things can be.

________________

A typical spring Friday night in my house means that there is lacrosse practice for my husband and older son and one or more other assorted events that has us roaming in various directions.  There are drop-offs and pick-ups and juggling meals and nothing that makes for a relaxing end of the week.  Tonight, my older son had an end-of-season basketball party while my husband had to go coach his team (minus my son and some of the other kids who also play basketball).  This left me in the unfortunate position of having to do drop-off and pick-up from the party while also having to feed and entertain my younger son.  And, as is typical for a Friday night for me, all I wanted to do was go up to bed, watch some TV and pass out.  I was wiped.  I had a plan.  I would drop off the older kid, make some dinner for the younger kid, sprawl out on the couch in the interim and then head back out to pick up the older kid.  My husband would fend for himself when he got home from practice because I would already be tucked away in bed.  However, my younger son had other ideas.

“Can we go out to dinner, please?”

“No, I’m too tired.”  I was in sweat pants and a t-shirt and was in no shape to be seen by the rest of the world.  My pink crocs, which I rarely display for anyone other than my immediate family, were glued to my feet.  I was not prepared for real clothes, makeup and putting on actual shoes.

“Pleeeease!  Just you and me, mommy.”

“No.  We can order a pizza.”  I figured that would put an end to this discussion.

“But I want to go out.  Please.”

I wasn’t sure what would be worse torture at that point.  Actually getting dressed, putting a brush through my hair and applying some makeup so I didn’t look quite as miserable and tired as I felt or listening to him whine about wanting to go out.  I relented.  It actually seemed like a better idea.  I would not have to cook and we could eat while my son was at his party and I would only have to go out once for the evening.  This was a plan I could live with.  Going out to dinner was, in fact, an easier plan and that was all I was striving for.

We dropped off the older boy at his party and the younger one and I headed to the diner.  We figured it would be crowded but we had time and we would make it work.

As the mother of a teenager, I spend a good deal of my time being reminded of how I am always wrong, how I don’t understand anything and how annoying I am.  When with my kids, I’m typically poised in a defensive position to deflect the barbs that are generally aimed my way.  No amount of reminding my son how disrespectful his comments might be, taking away his phone, preventing him from going out with his friends will ward off the biological disorder called adolescence that turns your once delightful child into a horrible beast.  I forget, sometimes, that I also have a 10-year old.  A child who can be challenging in his own right but is also an old soul who exudes more love and compassion than I have ever seen emanate from a single human being.  He has a perspective on the world that allows him to wander far beyond the typical selfish constructs of a tween and embrace a curiosity for humankind that amazes me.  While I sometimes might have labeled him as “manipulative” because he knows exactly how to turn on the charm when he needs to, I have come to realize that he has a genuine gift for knowing exactly the right things to say and do at exactly the right times.  He is tuned in.  He is connected.  He feels things.  And I am in awe of him.

And, tonight, as if on cue, he decided to bring me deeper into his world.  He decided to share with me the inner workings of his mind.  He opened himself up to me in a way I would expect to find with an adult.  He appreciated and valued our time together and explained to me why it was so important that he and I have dinner together – just the two of us.  His was not just a plan to eat outside the house.  He needed to connect.

So, there I am sitting across the table from my round-faced, freckled boy who entered this world a short 10 years, 3 months and 4 days ago.  The boy who has stubbornly refused to subscribe to any philosophy that I may have foisted upon him and chose to figure out what makes the world spin all on his own.  He is quietly brilliant, remarkably charming and will go to the ends of the earth to get a good laugh out of you.  He, himself, loves to smile and giggle and gets such great joy out of seeing others amused.  There I was with my boy who has struggled through all of 4th grade.  The boy who left school last June with a light shining so brightly after having overcame immense challenges with reading and writing.  This year, we saw him go from loving school to dreading taking tests and worrying that he would disappoint us.  My boy, who seemed to be heading down a dismal path of academic failure for reasons no one could understand, had something to tell me.  He needed me to know that all was not lost.  He needed to use that powerful invisible tether that connects mother and child to reassure me that he was ok and reinforce the direct line into his brain.

Tonight we sat together and talked.  He started by asking me what big amazing thing I wanted to see happen in the world.  I wasn’t sure if he was referencing an end to world hunger or the invention of a TV you could control with your mind. I looked at him quizzically and he said, “let me tell you what I am hoping for.  A real bionic man.”  I was intrigued because I had never heard him talk about anything like this before.  He went on to tell me how amazing it would be for someone to be able to do things they might have either lost the power to do (like having lost a leg or an arm) or never was able to do before (such as run a marathon when they found jogging too hard).  He wanted to give people a new chance with their lives so they could go on to do good things for other people.

Wow.  OK, I thought perhaps I might have to have his DNA checked because he was far too selfless to have sprung from my loins.

He went on to ask me about my business and provide his thoughts on how we might be successful.  He praised me for all the hard work we had done and told me how proud he was of me.  I had to catch my breath.  What was happening here?

We sat together for 90 minutes.  No phones, no handheld games, no distractions.  Just him and I.  We talked about what he liked and disliked about school and he shared with me all he was learning about Anne Frank and the Holocaust and about the Boston Tea Party.  He showcased his grammatical skills by telling me the differences between “they’re,” “their,” and “there” and “two,” “too,” and “to”.  I was over the moon.  He prattled on and on, engaging me in philosophical discussions about trying to invent teleporting – “Mommy, you could set your watch to have coffee with Tim in Kansas City at 3pm and when the time comes you will just be there to see him.  And then you can come home and have dinner with me.  Wouldn’t that be great?”  Oh yes, my extraordinary boy, it sure would.  And I believe you can make it happen.

He told me how, when he’s 30, he would come to pick me up and take me out to dinner.  “I can’t wait to do that for you, mommy.”  And, together we came up with the premise for a book about a superhero named Incognito who gained the power of invisibility while working as a scientist in a lab.  While trying to solve global warming, he interacted with a chemical that knocked him out.  When he awoke and stood up to see if he was bruised, he realized he could not see his reflection in the mirror.  And, he realized that he was not a vampire but, instead, he was incognito.  And then we talked about what it would be like to be able to become invisible in certain tough situations.

I sat across from my son during our meal and marveled at the words coming out of his mouth.  I wondered why I had not heard half of it before.  Was I not paying attention?  Did I not give him enough attention?  Was he constantly being overpowered by his older sibling?  I realized that some of it was new for him.  Some it was just finally forming into thoughts in his head.  And, some of it came out because the time was right.  He needed to have some alone time, away from the house, away from the rest of the family.  Some time just with me to share with me that he was doing great.  To show me that the world was opening up in his mind and now he loved to read, fancied himself a writer and had a newfound passion for history. “I’m pretty good at math too, mommy, but it’s not my best.” He wanted to share all the things that were stirring around in his mind with the person he felt he could most trust with it.  His mommy.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to smile as wide as my mouth could stretch or cry tears of joy.  All I knew for every moment of those 90 minutes was that I was grateful that I have this boy.  I love his big brother too but I know it will be a while before he’s coming back from Iamthemostimportantpersoninthewholewideworld Land and I won’t get opportunities like this with for a long time, if ever.  I was grateful to hear all the wonderful things floating around in his head and having the reassurance that he had not lost his spark.  I was grateful to hear about his passions that also happened to match some of mine.  I was most grateful for the fact that he is a beautiful, healthy, happy, kind and loving person.  And he is my child.  My blessing.  My gift.  I felt so very fortunate to have someone so extraordinary in my life.  I was grateful for the happy accident that we ended up together alone at dinner.  I was grateful for the small little things that made this night so unbelievably magical.

As dinner was ending – and I was sad to see it our little bubble burst – we chatted a little bit more about our plans for the weekend and he said, almost out of nowhere, “We need to do this more often, mommy.”  I smiled and nodded my head.  Yes we do, for sure.  And then, we got up, paid the check and walked outside.  I was beaming with pride and felt so joyful as I put my arm around his shoulder and he tucked his arm around my back.  “I’m so proud of you, buddy.  You are growing up to be such an amazing person.”  He was smiling and feeling proud and then said, “You did a good job raising me.”  And, I was done.  I laughed, embraced the moment and knew he was right.

FROM TODDLERS TO TEENAGERS


PJ-ORourke-580x580This weekend was one that we are all familiar with. It was time to clean out the closets (both literally and figuratively). I am not sure what it is about the warm weather and the onset of summer vacation that creates such an urge to purge. Surprisingly enough, it was kids who got the ball rolling this morning. After having friends over last night, they realized that their rooms were cluttered with too much junk, obscuring their treasured Nerf guns and clogging up the secret forts in each of their rooms. This morning I discovered both of my boys in their respective rooms creating piles of unwanted items – toys, books, clothes that no longer represented their quickly changing identities. My older son, moments away from turning 13 and bravely travailing the pathway of a teenager, had put aside a bin of Thomas the Tank Engine trains that had been stored in the back of his closet and secretly admitted to me that he had pulled them out and played with them this morning. “They were fun, mommy.”

I stood in his doorway, looking at the strewn items lying around his floor and glanced over at the trains, transported in a split second back to the days when he started building his vast collection. He was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, as many of his friends were, and he had a special affinity because he, too, was Thomas. The other boys, as their 2 and 3 year-old brains connected the dots that he was fortunate enough to share an identity with the sweet little blue train, often shrieked when Thomas was around, singing Thomas the Tank Engine songs to him. The images of him working away at his little train table which moved from our porch to the living room and finally making a home in his bedroom played a slideshow in my mind. There he was, all 3 feet tall, leaning over the table, his chubby little fingers struggling to connect the tracks with an intermittent cry out for help when his efforts proved fruitless. He loved his trains. His collection was immense. And, nearly 10 years later, he rediscovered them, not remembering his passion but acknowledging that they were special and should be saved.

That image seemed light years from the boy who sat around the backyard table last night with his friends and ours. I remarked to my friend who had come over for dinner that we had come full circle. Her 15 year-old son, a boy we have known since he was in preschool, was with us at the table as well and I recalled how it was just a few years ago that the kids wanted nothing to do with us and we could not get them to sit still to eat. And, it was just a few years before that when they were underfoot, pulling on our arms or legs asking to be cared for as we desperately struggled to have just a moment for ourselves. I imagined the children, as if in a stop-action photography image, going from toddlers to teens while disappearing and reappearing. Of course, their recent reappearance is far different from so many years ago. Last night, the boys all gathered around the table, shoving burgers and hot dogs into their quickly growing, fast-metabolizing bodies while taking photos to post to Instagram or listening a little too carefully to the adult conversations – suddenly very aware and understanding what we were discussing. I glanced around the table and imagined what the next 5 or 6 years would bring. Now, the boys were happy to sit and talk with us. They were having adult discussions, talking about other kids from school who were difficult to deal with and sharing their frustrations in hopes of garnering some support. They laughed at jokes in a wholehearted way that seemed unimaginable just last summer. They talked about girls they liked and gossiped about the dating scene in middle school. They were engaging in a mature and adult way.

I leaned back in my chair last night and just took it all in. There it happened again. Everything changed. No preparation. No heads up. No signals. No guidance. I was thrown, head-first, into the pool and it was sink or swim. I was holding my breath, recognizing that I had to come up for air as fast as I could before the water filled my lungs and I began to drown. This time, surprisingly, I was excited for the change. I found myself giddy at the anticipation of having children who could interact with us in a mature and sophisticated way. I loved listening to my son share his ideals and values (although he didn’t yet understand that he was actually doing that). I beamed with pride as I looked over at my husband. We did that. We helped to create this burgeoning adult.

Rather than being annoyed by having my son and his friends interrupt our adult dinner, I welcomed them into the discussion. We all engaged the kids, capitalizing on the opportunity to gather premium information that might not otherwise be available to us. Raising teenagers is a scary journey. There is more that you don’t know than you do know. It is virtually impossible to stay on top of them. Social media is all-consuming and, while it sometimes offers critical data to help give you small snapshots of their lives and psyches, it is hard to keep up with. Just when you think you’ve discovered all their online identities and have established monitoring systems to keep tabs, you realize they have moved on. The other day my friend summed it up. Facebook replaced MySpace. Instagram replaced Facebook. Something is out there replacing Instagram but we are not in touch enough to know what that is. Once upon a time we were able to put up gates to ensure that they could not fall down the stairs or we put latches on the cabinets so they could not obtain poisonous substances. We knew the dangers we needed to protect them from. There are no gates or latches to keep them safe. As parents, we are in dark caves, feeling our way around, hoping to find a ray of light to guide us.

I know I am lucky because my son has a strong sense of responsibility and inherently understands right from wrong. Of course, he is only 12 3/4 and has yet to truly experience all the dangers life has to offer an adolescent. But, with all of that, I have confidence that he will make some good decisions. And, I beam with pride when I look at him knowing that, as he enters one of the most difficult phases of his still young life, he has a lot of tools as his disposal – certainly many more than I ever had.

Now, as for the figurative cleaning out of the closets, I took a few minutes this morning, in between packing up clothes into bins and tossing out long outgrown toys that are not worthy of donation, and thought about my changing role as a parent. As I have been realizing for the past year or two, it is critically important to be present for our kids at this age. As much as I cherished our long-gone bedtime chats where I would lay in bed with each of my kids and read or talk about the random musings in their minds, I realize that their needs today are far more important. I know that I helped to create a foundation of trust and love with them during those times that I gave them my full attention and that helped to create our bonds today. And I know that they are paying much closer attention today, looking for me to read their subtle cues for guidance. The time I spend with them now is about building our relationship of the future. My presence in their lives during their teenage years will be the formulation of our adult relationship and will ensure that they feel close enough to me and trust me enough to have the really hard discussions. Our time together now is viewed through a much more critical lens – one that is ready to see me fail and prepared to remind me of it for years to come.

This afternoon, my son pulled out the Slip N Slide and set it up in the yard to get in some water fun with his brother and some friends. Several times he asked me if I would come out and play with them. I was still busy cleaning and doing some work and, after the third or fourth time when he said “Don’t you want to spend some quality time with your son having a good time?” I jumped up, put on my bathing suit and ran outside to make a fool of myself. I will, no doubt, be covered in bruises from the poor landings on the hard grass that my 45 year-old body handles much more poorly than his 12 year-old one does. But, he laughed and felt proud that his mom would come out and join in the fun. And that was the most important thing on earth today. Everything else could wait. I decided to shut out the rest of the world and just immerse myself in the space of my kids and, without any doubts, I knew that nothing else could be more meaningful, more valuable or bring me more joy. And now, as I sit here writing this, I am listening to both of my sons with their friends playing video games. Their voices are deeper than I remembered them being last summer and their discussions are far more complex. They are independent and mature. They walk through my house with their imposing statures – all athletes and growing fast and furiously. I am lapping it all up. Today, I recognize that all the other nonsense in my life is irrelevant. My children – growing and preparing to move on faster than I can keep up – are the only thing that matters in my life. When I am at the end of my life, I will not remember all the work I did or even the parties with friends. I will, however, be flanked by my family and will hopefully see that little boy with Thomas the Tank Engine trains who has passed them on to his own son. My joy, my bliss is right in those faces.

I certainly worry about my impact on my children and pray every day that they feel my love and know my commitment to their healthy development. I struggle with correcting the mistakes of my own parents and am consciously working to not pass along the dysfunction that marked my childhood. Without role models or handbooks, I trust that the immense love I feel for them will guide me along the right path. Earlier today, I got a sign that perhaps I am headed down the right path. After splashing around on the Slip N Slide, I went inside to do my daily check on some of his social media accounts and found that someone had asked him who his hero was and he responded – “My mom and dad.” OK, we got this.

LESSONS


educate your child“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” ~ Angela Schwindt

With two school-age children, mornings are a pretty tight operation in our house.  It can get a little chaotic preparing to get our two boys out the door to school but I am grateful for our morning hustle because it invariably offers unexpected discussions in the car.  Our routine for drop-off is simple.  First my younger son gets out at his elementary school and then my older son and I spend the bit longer journey to middle school mostly in silence while he usually plays with his phone.  I will try to make idle chit-chat with him that, far too often, results in eye rolling but, every now and then, he shares something that is, inexplicably and inevitably, discussion-provoking.  With a middle schooler, I get very few opportunities for conversation and, those I do, are almost always dictated by him.  He determines how much information he is going to share and when and how he does so.  Long gone are the days where I can sit him down with a snack after school and try to pump him for information about his day, his friends, his trials of life.  Instead, I sometimes get a stammering opening into a discussion that usually ends with him needing something from me (more often than not, his need involves cash).  I cherish those rare moments that he chooses to open up to me and I am very strategic about trying to capitalize on them whenever I can.

That morning chit-chat, with just the two of us, can yield openings to conversations that lend themselves to  moments of guidance on subjects that are clearly on my son’s mind.  But, with just a few minutes, they are sprints, no deep dives.  Whether he is conscious of it or not, he is very calculating about his timing.  He has five minutes in the car alone with me and, typically, he waits until we are about 3 blocks from his school before he opens his mouth.  Earlier this week, on the first day back at school after our weeklong spring break, at just about the exact same spot as usual, my son opened his mouth and what came out provided assurance that he is genetically connected to me.  If I ever had any concerns about him being switched at birth, watching him blossom into a teenager and hearing some of his rumination, confirm that they sent us home with the correct child.

“It’s going to really suck to see all those kids with tans at school today.”  The moment he said it, I knew where he was going.  I also knew that this had been on his mind for a while now.  “I’m really glad we didn’t go away like everyone else.  It would suck to have get back to reality today.  I hate the end of vacation so I am glad we didn’t go.”

Really?  Such intense rationalization at 12 years old?

My poor son. I, being the mother, reminded him that all of his close friends were home during spring break.  He then pointed out that it was all the rich kids – the kids from the other side of town – who had gone away.

“That would be so hard.  I hate that about vacation.  I’d rather not go.” He lamented.

Oh crap, he is not me.  He is my mother! 

I offered some basic wisdom to him, reminded him that we will, again, go on vacation and that, yes, going away can be very bittersweet because of re-entry but it is all worth it in the end.  Oh yeah, and take lots of pictures.  They will help you cope with the malaise that falls over you when you are back to your daily grind and cannot remember what it was like to be soaking in the sunshine on the beach or languishing by the pool.  The photos will remind you that, in fact, it was not just a wonderful dream.  You were there.

After I dropped him at school and tried to push aside all the guilt I often experience during these brief but meaningful discussions, I thought about our little chat.  I thought about his patterns of behavior and his need to share these little nuggets with me during our morning routine.  I reflected on his growing maturity and witnessing an observable shift to processing disappointment rather than having a temper tantrum (which, quite frankly, is what I want to do most of the time – thank goodness I have my children around to teach me appropriate behavior).  He mentioned only about one hundred times how he wished we had gone away for spring break.  He complained about how boring it was to stay home, especially when his parents had to work and were taking shifts to entertain him and his brother so they did not spend exactly 11 days in exactly the same indented spots on the sofa playing xbox.  I could see his point of view and, while I felt sad that he was wishing for a vacation (aren’t we all?), I appreciated that he was not too burdened by it.  But, of course, I wonder what goes on in that mini-adult brain.  I wonder what he sees through his lens.  He knows that he is not one of the rich kids – and that was the word that stung the most.  He feels lacking and I don’t ever want money to be the definition of happiness for either of my children.  My husband and I have struggled to shield my children from any financial woes we may have had at any point in time but, now, it is crystal clear that he knows.  He knows we are not rich.  At least not financially.

Earlier this year, we had a discussion with both of our children about money.  We explained that this was going to be a tight year for us all because I am involved in a start-up business and I’m spending a good chunk of the year without a salary.  Any money we have is going towards supporting us during the phase.  This means no vacations this year.  There will be no disposable income for eating out several times a week or for mindless shopping at Target.  Every dollar is accounted for and earmarked to help change our lives, hopefully.  We have explained all this to the kids and, to the best of their ability, they understand.  But, they are young and they also remember wonderful spring break trips and beach vacations.  (They, of course, do not remember how miserable they were on some of those trips and how much they tortured us but that is for another day.)  We have been very honest with our children, not because we want to burden them with any of our challenges, but to allow them to understand that this is temporary and that we have a bigger plan in mind.  We want to teach them about decision-making and hard choices and show them the silver linings that come with that.  We never want to deprive them and probably have been over-generous with them to compensate for our own lacking childhoods.  Our main goal is that, when it is time for them to leave their childhoods behind, they will feel that they were loved deeply and provided with a solid foundation.  They will remember the vacations and they will appreciate, at some point, all of the hard work their parents put in so they could live a pretty nice life but I want them to also understand the struggle.  There is no entitlement in life except for the entitlement of self-worth.   Everything else comes at a price.

I am watching my son, half a year away from turning 13, begin to process life.  I am trying to crawl inside his head to see how he puts the pieces together in his mind.  When he says things to me that seem so far beyond his age, so much more wise than I expect my little baby to be, I am startled and overjoyed.  I love that my children are growing and maturing.  I love that I can have intellectual conversations with them and explore the world with a whole new dimension.  And, at the same time, it breaks my heart just a little bit.  I realize that, with this maturity, comes a transparency.  We can no longer whisper, spell things out or use code words because they know.  They get it.  They understand what we are talking about.  And, with sons, they are not about to let you know they know what you’re saying until they can strategically use it against you.  They are not inquisitive about the travails of life.  They do not ask for guidance.  At least my kids don’t.  Not until the road is dark and they cannot find a light to show them the way will they reach out, arms outspread, and say “Mommy, help me.”  My son, already an inch taller than me, stands tall and proud and locks it all up inside.  Then, every now and again, perhaps because he is slumped down in the car seat and not on the top of his game at the moment, he will exhale and a little gem will come slipping out.  Sometimes I get a little periscope to see inside and catch a little glimpse of that maturing mind.

I learn from my children every single day.  They show me what it is like to be happy and fulfilled young people.  Their lives are not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and I die a little bit inside every time I see another piece of their innocence lost.  I struggle with not solving their problems and letting them learn and figure out how to navigate the increasingly challenging waters of life.  Yet, they teach me how to love and be loved.  They remind me why I get up every day.  They fill my heart with love and then have the capability of breaking it, with a sneer, a disapproving glance or the infamous eye roll.

This morning?  Not a word.  Some groans and a hasty goodbye when it was time for him to get out of the car.  But, you know what?  I’ll take it.

THE BEST GIFT EVER


christmas presentIn 1980 I was 13 and, for the first time, shopped for Christmas presents on my own, with my own money saved from babysitting.  I can still see the images of the busy street late one December afternoon, shortly after John Lennon was shot.  I felt the heaviness and significance of his murder despite not yet having discovered the Beatles in any meaningful way.  I knew a song or two but did not understand how legendary Lennon was and had never heard of The White Album or Abbey Road.  It was the first time I heard the powerful lyrics of  “Imagine” which was playing in every store I entered and I can still hear the words in my head as I walked from Woolworth’s to the stationery store to a few more little shops on that blustery cold afternoon in search of gifts.

What does not stand out to me as much, thankfully, is the heaviness I often felt during the holidays, particularly that year with the bittersweet freedom of shopping on my own darkened by the reality that I really had no one to buy for.  Christmas in 1980 was just going to be me and my mom and, frankly, we didn’t even really celebrate.  My mother was Jewish (lapsed, obviously, after having married and divorced a Catholic).  We didn’t have much money and, even in the best of times there were never any big holiday celebrations.  This year would be no different.  We might have been seeing my sister and her husband but that would have depended upon whether or not she and my mother were speaking.  Likely, it was just Mom and me, sitting alone in our house with me fantasizing about what Christmas could be.

Christmas, during my childhood, was often lonely.  My mother resented Christmas because it was not “her” holiday but she also did not observe her own Jewish holidays so there was no Hannukah celebrations either.  Both of my parents were often estranged from their siblings and parents because of conflicts which arose from their unwelcomed marriage and, as a result, we sufffered.  When we did actually celebrate the holidays, they felt small and joyless, often ending in conflicts between my parents or my siblings.  They were heavy, burdened events.  As a result, I felt like an outsider to all those around me who were showered in joyful traditions and family.  One of my more memorable Christmases was the year my parents first split up and my dad came to take me and my brother shopping for presents.  I was probably around 8 or 9 at the time and was filled with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of going to the toy store and picking out anything I wanted.  He came to fetch us in his little blue Mercedes convertible, the car he bought when he left my mother and moved in with his girlfriend.  It was the car he parked in our driveway one night in a drunken stupor and sat on the horn screaming obscenities at my mother.  I remember the police coming and I remember the frilly nightgown I wore as I stared out the window filled with shame.  I hated that car.  On the day he came to get us, I knew exactly what I wanted and could hardly believe that my father would agree to such a purchase.  But, I suppose a silver lining to divorce was parental guilt on his part and  I secured myself the Barbie Town House.  It was the most coveted toy of the year and  I could not believe my good fortune that I was getting the mack daddy of all Barbie residences.  Sure, the beach house was cool but this was the Town House – with an elevator!  When we brought home our loot, my mother, who was resentful and angry that our father had chosen to shower us with gifts, took everything from us and prevented us from opening our new toys until Christmas day.  It was on that cold, overcast day that I was sent outside to the backyard, suited up in my hand-me-down winter coat that my mother secured from my sister or one of the older girls on the block, where I set up my house on the redwood picnic table and, in gloved hands, assembled the furniture and let my Barbies have the Christmas celebration that was fit for such a dream house.

As I grew older, I loved the idea of buying gifts, wrapping them in beautiful papers with bows and matching name tags. I would buy presents for anyone I could, even if it meant buying a Hello Kitty eraser for one of my friends at school – as long as I could wrap it up in a neat little package and pile it with any other gifts I had assembled.  We never had a tree so I kept my gifts on the floor of my closet, usually hidden from my mother who thought such indulgences were unnecessary and wasteful.  I would stare at the packages, all beautifully stacked in all their colorful splendor.  I dreamt of becoming a gift wrapper at one of the department stores and, the first time I saw “Miracle on 34th Street”, I fantasized about what it would be like to work at a store like Macy’s during the holidays.

Every year, since that stroll down the boulevard in 1980, I dreamt of big festive Christmas celebrations.  I longed to have a big, extended family with a tall, proud tree, glimmering with lights and ornaments that took my breath away.  I wished for the nonstop arrival of guests, bearing gifts and plates of food and the laughter and storytelling of Christmases past.  And every year, especially after my children were born, I tried to make that happen.  My husband and I celebrated our first Christmas in NJ in our little apartment, with a little tree but we spent Christmas Eve at his uncle’s house with his big Italian family.  They got a live tree every year and would collect it and trim it on Christmas Eve.  It was an event filled with tradition and merriment and I loved it.  In later years, after we had children, we celebrated here in our home, relishing in the delight of the kids as they prepared on Christmas Eve for the arrival of Santa and awoke with amazement at the abundance of toys Santa managed to squeeze down our narrow little chimney.  There has always been a beautiful tree with lights and ornaments that we collected over the years, imprinted with photos and dates and memories of our life as a family.

It all seems so perfect and magical, just as I always imagined it being.  But, alas, my baggage is heavy.  My memories are dark.  My loneliness associated with the holidays is still so vivid that I can taste it, feel it, smell it.  So, as we have created traditions for our children over the years, I recognize that I have spent a lot of effort overcompensating and creating manufactured events to make up for the shortcomings of my life before my husband and children.  It never occurred to me, even once, that I was inadvertently repurposing the demons that haunted me even though they were not part of my children’s reality.  They never had a reason to feel that their holiday celebrations were anything but magical regardless of how many people came to our house, how many presents were found under the tree or whether or not we got dressed up or used fine china for our dinner.  Those were issues that mattered only to me and the pain attached to these ideas were rooted squarely in my past and resulted from my lacking.

This year, as we began our planning for the holidays, I talked to my husband and children about all of the possible activities and events.  I talked about going out to cut down our tree with a group of friends and shared the various invitations to holiday parties.  We discussed who we might want to invite over for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or options for spending the holiday with others away from our home.  And, to my shock, both of my children, now aged 9 and 12, said they wanted the holidays to be at home with just the four of us.  They did not want any big events.  They did not want to go to lots of parties.  They wanted us to go together, alone, to find our tree, trim it ourselves and carry out our family traditions together.  All I could hear was that we would be alone and all they communicated was that we would be together.  For them, our little family of 4 represented peace and comfort and security and love.  For me, it had always felt too small, too simple, too alone.

I stopped speaking.  I listened to their words and literally felt myself healing.  I allowed myself to be buoyed by my children.  I indulged in their sense of love and security and borrowed it for myself.  For right there in that discussion at our kitchen table my children assured me that they were not me and that their reality was nothing even close to mine.  They assured both me and my husband that we had given them the one gift neither of us had been afforded – unconditional love.  They were happy.  Happy with our little family of four and our quiet traditions of baking, playing games and watching movies together on the couch without the distractions of others who might burst our little bubble. There need not be more tradition, more festivity and more stuff.  They required nothing more than Mom and Dad and each other and they released me from my penance of working feverishly to create events to make the holidays special and memorable for my kids. It already was.

Yes, in 2012, the tables began to turn and my kids started to teach me.  My kids provided a much-needed  reality check that the world does not always exist in the way that I think it does.  My kids reminded me, without ever saying the words or even knowing the stories to share, that they did not have to play outside on Christmas day with the new most treasured toy because I was too angry or resentful of my ex-husband to let them play with their new loot inside.  My kids shined a light on the fact that they never sat alone in the house on Christmas lonely or bored and never had to stockpile gifts in their closets because there was no tree to place them under.  My children never knew anything but a beautiful magical Christmas and, to them, Christmas was wonderful because the four of us were together, regardless of who else showed up, even if we never went anywhere and despite the packages mostly coming from mom and dad.  To my children, the most wonderful and precious memories were the ones that included the four of us being together on Christmas morning, opening our gifts, laughing in delight as they screamed and cheered at their acquisition of “THE best present EVER” over and over again.

So, for me, in 2012 I certainly got THE best present EVER.  I got the gift of knowing that my children are happy and that their memories of Christmas will be joyful and, hopefully, filled with traditions that they will pass down to their children.  Mission accomplished.  Amen.

DISBELIEF


dont believe in santaLast night at dinner, my younger son who is nearly two weeks away from turning 9, declared, in his usual snide and sarcastic way that he no longer believes in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny (and likely other mythical creatures that he could not remember to rattle off at that moment).  My husband and 12-year old son took great joy in this proclamation while I sat, head hung low, realizing that yet another milestone had been crossed in my child’s life journey.  One that, with him being my baby, I certainly was not ready for.

“Who do you think brings all those presents every year?” I asked defiantly.  I was determined to disprove this and console myself that there was still a faint glimpse of fairy dust floating around in his brain.

He smiled so wide that his eyes were squinting and he tried mightily to hold back the giggles.  “Um, uh, I don’t know,”  he stammered, surely seeing in my eyes that I simply wanted some evidence that he was not growing up rapidly right before my eyes.  “Just kidding!  I believe!  Of course it’s Santa!”  He laughed through the words and I knew he was just humoring me, understanding on some level of my irrational maternal need to keep my child young and innocent.  Or, just maybe, there was still some wonder in his mind as to whether or not that chubby, red-suited, bearded fellow shoved himself down our narrow chimney each Christmas eve.  Yeah, not likely.

“Who do you think eats the cookies and drinks the milk we leave out?” I jabbed back at him.  He grinned again, realizing that his mommy was not about to give up the good fight.  “Well, maybe it’s Buddy!” He was assigning blame to our beloved dog who steals food off his plate every morning as he dawdles through breakfast not swallowing up his english muffin or waffles fast enough while the dog stands guard waiting, hoping for a merciful bite.  “But,” he sighed dramatically.  “It probably is Santa!  Don’t worry, I believe!”

He went on to share, however, that he did witness, one Easter eve, as he mistakenly wandered into the kitchen after bedtime, two baskets and some candy laying out on the table.  “I know Daddy was making those baskets up for us.”  And when I challenged him further on the Tooth Fairy, my beloved husband could not resist but to sarcastically point out that my son invariably ends up with the exact same amount of cash that resides in my wallet each time he safely and securely tucks his newly displaced tooth under his pillow.  Both my children laughed hysterically at his comment and I knew, right there, that the jig was up.  I wondered, however, why my young son still carried on, with such painstaking effort, the rituals that we had taught and replayed time and again with the Tooth Fairy or with Santa or the myriad other false icons that we suggested brought magic into our home.  Why was it that, just last week, he spent five minutes finding the perfect spot to place his tooth so that the “Tooth Fairy” would find it?  Did he realize it was me sneaking into his room, after he had fallen asleep (and before I had fallen off and forgotten to replace his tooth with the required cash that lay waiting in my wallet) and wanted to ensure I had an easy extraction of the tooth so as not to have to move his head around too much and risk waking and blowing my cover?  Was he, in fact, carrying on this tradition to make me feel better to ensure that his position as mommy’s baby and devoted child was not tarnished as he watched me struggle through the transition to having a teenage son with his older brother?  Was he that masterful?

Knowing him, perhaps.

Quite simply, his superpowers of being a child who wants to protect his mother’s innocence may very well have trumped my efforts to be a mother who wants to protect her child’s innocence.

This morning, as I was dropping my kids off at school, I was reflecting on the conversation from last night and the subsequent conversations I had with my younger son trying mercifully to break him down and find out what he really believed.  I realized that, right there, at the dinner table last night, we took a giant step forward.  We moved from being a family with young children with whom we had to devise elaborate fantasies to protect from the truthful realities of grown-up life to a family with nearly adolescents who were beginning to understand the ways of the world.  They had vocabularies that explained their feelings and ours in ways that surprised me on a regular basis.  They had developed a sophistication that I equally loved and dreaded.  They were growing up.  While I relish the fact that my older son still asks me on a nightly basis to tuck him in (despite the fact that the request comes from a voice that is getting lower and lower each night), I realize that in four years he will be getting his learner’s permit and the next big declaration – if I am lucky enough to be clued in – might be that he has kissed a girl or, heaven forbid, that he has had sex.  We are entering a new frontier, friends and I am hanging on by my fingernails to the old one.

Several nights ago, before my younger son burst my bubble, he and I were in my bedroom reading and having our nightly chit chat.  “Mommy, this is my favorite time of the day,” he casually mentioned in between sharing stories of the other kids in his third grade class.  “I hope we do this always.”

Me too, pal.

WORK LIFE DRAMA CLUB


“Man plans, God laughs” — Yiddish Proverb

This whole conversation of work/life balance is definitely fraught with controversy.  Many, including myself, would argue that there is no such thing as balance.  As a friend said to me recently, you’re always giving 100% – no matter what.  And, in my house, it is not just me giving 100% to everything, my husband does the same.  One would assume that with that 200% effort, we would actually be on top of it all but, in reality we still struggle to hold everything together.

Any of us who have spent any time working on, talking about or researching work/life will tell you that even if you have developed the best plan, it will all go out the window the minute something out of the ordinary pops up.  Whether it be an unexpected illness, a last-minute business trip, a crisis at the office or some other wrinkle that was not included in that original master plan, suddenly your strategy is blown and chaos ensues.  It is a tightrope walk for sure.

In my house, last week was one of those times when our perfectly planned strategy was abolished by a series of unplanned problems and interferences that threw everything out of whack.  On a positive note, it also forced us to regroup and reprioritize.  For someone like me who is a planner and likes to have a handle on what is happening at all times, unexpected events and challenges often throw me for a loop.  However, these occurrences are also often a chance to reset ourselves and force us to revisit our priorities and make some adjustments.  For my family, last week was just one of those times.

I was out of town on a business trip in the midwest the week before last.  Since I own my own business and pay for all of my own travel expenses, I tend to try to find the rock-bottom cheapest flights.  This often forces me to travel at inopportune times like super early in the morning or returning on a weekend day rather than racing back as soon as my meeting is done (boy, do I miss the corporate Amex!).  For this trip, I was scheduled to fly back early on Saturday morning in order to allow me to get back in time to pick my younger son up from his show rehearsal.  He was an ensemble member in his very first performance and was extremely excited about it – as were we despite the crazy rehearsal schedule that we really did not focus too much attention on.  We had already grown accustomed to his class schedules at the performing arts school and had worked in the biweekly rehearsals but we had not yet digested the intense tech schedule for the week leading up to the show.  More on that in a minute.

On top of the show rehearsal, I had to take my older son shopping to buy clothes for his upcoming band concert as well as attend a christening for our cousin’s new baby.  Plus, we had a basketball game on Sunday, another full-day of rehearsals for younger son’s show, the Giants were playing for a spot in the Super Bowl (which automatically cuts our own team in half because husband must be granted clemency to watch his beloved Giants clinch a spot) and I had to prepare for a client meeting on Monday for which I had to leave early as we were making a 4-hour drive (to save on travel costs).  Sigh…  Everything was planned down to the last minute.  Frankly, I really had not even planned beyond Monday because it was enough to just get us there.

Well, for those of you living in the NYC metro area, you will recall that last weekend we were going to have that first big winter storm and, in preparation, Continental Airlines cancelled my flight (and all flights) home to NJ on Saturday.  This all before a single flake had fallen or before they learned that the big storm would result in a massive 3 inches.  So, I was stuck in the midwest for an additional day and, right there, in a split second, the plan was blown.

There would be no pickup from rehearsal by me and now I had to coordinate all kinds of carpooling the next day to ensure that not only would my younger son have a ride to and from the theater but I would also have my own pickup from the airport.

My husband was tasked with the job of going out with my older son to procure black pants and a white shirt for the winter band concert (which, surprisingly enough, he did a great job with).

No one from my clan attended the cousin’s child’s christening as we were either in flight, at rehearsal, driving to or from rehearsal, procuring clothing or otherwise occupied picking up the slack.

There was little time for preparation for the important client meeting and we had to do a little bit of “winging it.” (That worked out surprisingly well too!)

Miraculously, we managed to do everything we needed to get through Monday.  But, in all of the angst of preparing for my return from the business trip and leaving on the next one, I really had not prepared for the week ahead.  First, I did not factor in that my younger son’s big musical production would require him to be at a theater 30 minutes away for two rehearsals during the week and all weekend long.  I had not realized that I was invited to attend my older son’s winter band concert which of course takes place smack in the middle of the workday (and would be expected – no excuses – to attend said concert).  I did not expect that our meeting would go so well on Monday that I would have two proposals to write during the week on top of the other work that was already piling up (since I had been out of town all the previous week).

Are you following all this?

Yes, a bit of a mess indeed.  It was Wednesday when I first began to process the magnitude of all that I had forgotten.  I knew that our weekend was pretty much tied up with my son’s show although I was committed to squeezing in a girl’s night with some friends and let my husband be the dutiful parent watching the show that night.  (Needless to say, that was one of the first alterations to the plan.)

I have probably been labeled a “joiner” more than once.  I tend to be very liberal with my volunteering and can easily be convinced (coerced) into helping out.  So, probably because of the meeting I had agreed to kick off on Tuesday night and the various breakfast meetings I agreed to attend as part of my volunteer work, I was tired and my resistance was low when my younger son asked me to hang around for his 5 hour rehearsal at the theater 30 minutes away from my home on Thursday (which sounded like a clever plan since I could make myself useful rather than schlepping back and forth).  The day before, I nearly ran out of gas on my way to the theater 30 minutes away from my home as I failed to actually pay attention to the loud beeps coming from my car telling me I was running out of gas.  Picture me navigating myself around towns without any clue as to where there might be a gas station and praying dearly that my limited fumes of gas would get us to a service station.  (Thankfully, my older son managed to keep his cool rather than his normal dialogue pointing out what a dope I am for not remembering to fill up before we got on the highway.) And, of course, I am managing all this while on a call with a colleague!

When I called my friend who was serving as a stage manager for the show to ask if I could be of any help while I was hanging around for the 5 hour rehearsal on Thursday, I was done in.  I had inadvertently sucked myself into the show and landed myself a role as a stage hand.  (By the way, after watching way too many episodes of “Dance Moms,” I was doing my best to stay away from the director and choreographers so as to not insert any additional drama!) I had become ingratiated with this show and was committed to supporting it for the entire weekend.

And I could not have been happier.

I had to throw all my plans out the window.  There would be no girls’ night for me.  I would be able to watch the show but wanted to be certain that I managed the responsibilities I had committed myself to.  I took this on like I would any project for work and gave it everything I had.  I raised my white flag, surrendered the schedule and just become part of this production to support my younger son.  Even though he had only a small part in the ensemble and spent most of his time hanging out with his little friends in between numbers and costume changes, I knew my being there and being part of the crew made him feel more special.  Granted, I was a bit of a theater geek back in high school so this was like a little flashback and I loved it.  I was cheering for all the leads and watching them do their pre-show routines.  I marveled at all the work that went into the quick costume changes, prop placement, moving of sets and all the other wonderful drama that goes on behind the scenes.  For several blissful days, nothing existed but the show and I forgot about all the foibles of the week that screwed up my schedule.  All that really mattered now was getting this production off and supporting my son in his FIRST BIG SHOW!

On Sunday morning when we were preparing for the final performance, I told my friend how tired I was and how surprised I was at how the show sucked up so much of my mental and physical energy. She laughed at me and asked when I was going to blog about this experience.  Well, here you go Kim!  Thanks for letting me be part of the magic and thanks for helping me remember that what happens in between our plans is what life is all about!

And congratulations to all the amazing kids who put on an incredible show!  Count me in for next year – maybe this time I’ll put it on the schedule!