Donning My Mom Genes


motherhood

I’m convinced I was born without the “mom gene.” My hypothesis is confirmed repeatedly whenever I am engaged in activities with my kids. For starters, I’ve never been one of those moms who comes prepared with Mary Poppins’ purse filled with everything but the kitchen sink. Instead, I’m the mom who shows up at a sporting event forgetting to bring sunscreen, snacks or drinks. Yep, you know who I am. I’m the one who lets my kids leave the house in the spring or fall without a sweatshirt and you see them shivering in the fetal position under my jacket as they sit on the sidelines or are at a gathering with friends. I’m also the mom whose eyes start rolling towards the back of her head when around other moms as they talk about recipes and sure-fire remedies for sore throats, poison ivy or engage in the popular topic of identifying lice. My brain cannot process information and I quickly fade away, taking cover in a safe mental space where children do not exist.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my kids tremendously and could not possibly be more grateful that I was blessed with my two boys. However, I have had to learn to accept that I did all this while suffering from a significant deficiency. Without question, I am typically an epic failure when it comes to the hard-core mom stuff. Sure, I can clip nails (although one of my early attempts landed my then 5-month old firstborn in the ER for stitches), clean wax out of the ears and dispense medicine. I have a first aid kit to tend to minor scrapes and cuts and can navigate my way around Neosporin. But, that’s all folks. That’s the end of the road. I don’t cook meals, I loathe the field trips and I am doomed if left to create a costume. Halloween gives me hives.

Over the years, after packing for more than my share of guilt trips, I have come to accept my lack of mad mom skills and have tried to stop beating myself up. Every trip to the playground used to leave me penitent when the other moms would pull ziplock bags out of their designer diaper bags filled with pretzels or goldfish crackers. I’ve now moved beyond the shame of each and every time I needed to borrow a wipe or a bandaid when one of my children skinned a knee or had ice cream dripping down their face, shirt, hands and legs. It was a quickly learned lesson that I would just never be that person. I’m not that mom. And, frankly, I am in awe of those women who can pull a stick of gum, a tissue, a tweezer or an assortment of other devices out of their bag and turn themselves into MacGyver. I just watch in wonder.

Of course, this does leave me with just a wee bit of insecurity. I can’t help but wonder if I’m not that mom, then what kind of mom am I? Am I just the one who spends all her time working and has missed out on all the milestones and accomplishments? How many more times will I rely upon Facebook to see photos of concerts, field trips or games? I’ve battled these questions for the past 14 years and cringe every time I hear another parent say when they meet me for the first time: “Oh, you’re _____’s mom!!  I wondered if he had one…” Really?

When my children were born, I didn’t really give much thought to what kind of mother I would be. The excitement of my first born’s arrival was surely coupled with typical first-parent worries but I simply assumed I would figure it out. I wasn’t the expectant mom with a birth plan (just get him out as painlessly as possible was my mantra) and I never wrote a manifesto for myself outlining the type of parent – or more specifically, the type of mom – I wanted to be. My main objective was always very clear – to love my kids and send them out into the world feeling confident and secure. If I was being truly honest with myself, I couldn’t guarantee that I had much more than that to offer. I had no real mommy role models because my own mother was deficient in her own ways and all the other moms I knew were glorified from afar and I didn’t get to see the true inner workings of how they pulled off what they did. I was never even sure that all those moms who were ever-present and running the PTA were, in fact, the best moms. The true test, of course, was how their kids turned out in the end and how the kids felt about their moms when all was said and done. Ultimately, while I hated when my own mother said this, I now know she was spot on  – you do the best that you can.

I joke about my obvious shortcomings with friends and they kindly remind me of all the good things I do for my kids. I talk with more seasoned moms who have seen the fruits of their labors with grown children and they reassure me that my children will be ok. And, there is no doubt for me that I am an incredibly loving and supportive parent and play a critical role in my sons’ lives. I just don’t fit the traditional Carol Brady or Harriet Nelson or whomever the most current ideal mom role model is. I don’t fit into any of those archetypes. Someone recently made a comment to me that my children follow the course I set for them and I thought long and hard about that because it seems unreal to me that I have set any course. Every morning I wake up and feel like I am winging in. I have no idea where the day will take me when it comes to my kids and I hope and I pray that I will have the right answers and the wisdom to guide them as they blaze their own trails. I have never dictated (nor has my husband) their journeys and have only encouraged the interests they have demonstrated a passion for. We set ground rules for behavior and have laid out our expectations as it relates to respect, hard work and honesty but, beyond that, the road has always been theirs to explore. I have loved my children with every ounce of my being and remind them frequently how much they are loved and supported. And I also remind them that if the requisite ingredients are not in the house, I might not be able to procure cookies, cupcakes or a last-minute cake. I simply don’t have those skills. I have taught them about responsibility and how to respect women. My very existence is evidence of what is possible for women who seek fulfillment both professionally and personally.

My sons are now a teenager and a tween and neither of them think those mad MacGyver skills are all that necessary any longer. My ability to drive and withdraw cash from my bank account ensure my superhero status in their lives. After all, my younger son proclaimed that MOM stands for Made Of Money. For me, however, I am still working on my cloak of invisibility during those recipe swap, illness remedy and homework discussions. I long for a day when I can feel equally proud of missing those games (because of what amazing things I might be doing when I am not there) as I feel when I manage to whip up a batch of brownies without having to make three trips to the grocery store. A girl can dream…

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.

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.