Pills, Pot, Profanity and Parenting

As I was leaving a parenting presentation at the local school on the topic of ‘Drugs, Alcohol, and the Teenage Brain,’ I caught up with a fellow mother of a teen boy.  We commiserated in hushed whispers about the pessimistic message of the presenter, fearing that an unintended ear would hear our true confessions. We know that our boys use substances that are frowned upon by social standards, aka laws, and we have learned to tolerate it – somewhat.

Call it self-preservation – or something more judgmental and harsh if you wish.  But don’t mistake it for ignorance, negligence, or lack of caring.  Countless conversations, teaching moments, threats, punishments and bribes have been employed at our discretion over 18 years.  And still, here we are, facing the dilemma of how to keep our kids on the straight and narrow.

When we begin the parenting journey in blissful naivete, we actually believe that we have control over how our kids turn out.  As if children ‘turn out’ – like a soufflé.  With thoughtful intention and unproven parenting prowess, we create a recipe for ourselves, certain that if we follow every instruction carefully, our result will be perfect, or at least predictable.  Plans shmams.

The illusion begins to deconstruct as early as the first tantrum when our little cherub learns to express his discontent.  It progresses to backtalk, profanity, sneaky behavior, lying….any rebellion that helps a child begin the natural separation from parent.  ‘Psychological differentiation’ they call it – an academic way to describe the tug of war between parent and evolving child.  If kids aren’t testing their boundaries, they’re not growing.

A professional colleague had a son who was delinquent and derelict by all accounts.  The mother, an educated and compassionate soul, endured a years-long struggle to set him straight.    Certain that she had failed as a mother, she all but gave up hope of him ever pulling himself together. The boy, a late bloomer you might say, transformed his life in his 30s and went on to study law enforcement.  He is now a judge.  I’ll bet he’s a cracker-jack judge, having had all that experience on the other side of the law.  I also bet that prior to his current career, there was plenty of gossip about how the boy ‘turned out’.  And lots of judgment about his parents, too.

Another friend has a brother who started smoking pot at the age of 14.  He wouldn’t quit until he decided that becoming a pilot was more important.  The point is this: the lives of our children are not about what we want for them.  It’s about what they want, when they want it. 

This is a hard pill to swallow for a conscientious parent. Parents are under pressure to produce a product that will pass quality control.  But to some degree, our real motivation is to satisfy our own need to have a child who makes us proud, or at the very least, doesn’t shame us. We want the ease of not  having to worry about the stability, safety, or success of our children.  We don’t want to be reminded that they are their own beings who have every right to make choices – good ones and bad ones. 

Long ago my son refused GPS tracking, aka Parent Stalking.  Thank goodness.  It has forced me to trust or to worry blindly – just like my parents did without the benefit (or curse) of constant contact.  When I feel the need to check in, I text the one question that summarizes my intent:  “Are you happy and safe?”  That’s really what I want to know.  More importantly, that’s what I want my son to ask himself.  I want him to check in with his own heart and mind.  If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, ADJUST COURSE.  I’ve found that the asking is enough to let him know that he is loved and that I’m here for him.

My threshold for alarm is raised quite high since the early days when I worried about kids not eating vegetables to the the present concerns of kids making choices about risky behavior.  Case in point, when teen son opened the pantry cabinet and found an array of delicious and very un-nutritious snack food, he turned to me in shock, grinning from ear to ear.  “You’ve given up, haven’t you?” he asked with delight.  “That deserves a hug!”  I accepted the hug with the same level of gleeful appreciation with which my son cracked open his bag of chips.

Sometimes our parenting doctrine gets in the way of our evolution.  It becomes a god we worship ritualistically without question.  At some point we must loosen the reigns simply because they become too hard to hold on to.  Which usually means that it’s exactly the right time to let go. 

This year I accompanied my son to the voting polls for the first time, where he cast his own vote based on his own thought process.  He was also called for jury duty and could be part of determining another person’s fate.  In the eyes of the law, he is mostly his own young man.  He knows his current mind, and his thoughts are valid, if not in line with my own.  He is experiencing his expanding heart.  He is living with his raging hormones.  And none of it begs me to interfere or to impose outdated restrictions.  It asks for freedom to live.

Wise adults tell children that they were placed on earth to shine their own light.  What if your child’s light is less like a lighthouse and more like a bonfire?  What if the very purpose of his life, the hope he gives, comes so far down the road that you can’t see it?  Maybe it’s in a form that you don’t yet recognize.  Maybe he is shining his light already but you can’t see past your disapproval of personality or behavior.

After all these years I have less certainty than I did before I became a parent.  Much of what I thought I knew was best for my children was misguided because it was based on my own ideas from my own life.  It turns out that ‘best’ is a nebulous and evasive concept.

We simply cannot know what is best for anyone but ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we don’t try to impart our wisdom or enforce rules that make our lives sane.  But we must remember that parenting is part of a bigger dance – one in which every child has the right to be his or her unique self, whether we like it or not.

The Joy of Reunion

reunitedI arrived at the bus station after midnight to collect my college daughter for Thanksgiving break and found myself ensconced in a scene that resembled a Hallmark movie.

Families waiting in street-lit darkness are unable to conceal their excitement as they jump from their parked cars at first sight of the incoming bus that would deliver their babies back home.

Girls hug unsuspecting brothers who are in turn befuddled by the uncharacteristic gesture of affection from a sibling rival. Fathers show vulnerability of emotion. Mothers grin and squeal, beyond ecstatic.

Tears blossom in my own eyes as I watch love unfold in micro-bursts all around me. Generosity of spirit abounds in these reunions. Not a single trace of stress or apathy affects anyone in this moment. It is pure love. Emotional gold.

Principessa and I are alone for the ride home and we chat without pause, catching up in a way that can’t be accomplished in our weekly phone calls. There is touch and expression and presence to satisfy my hungry soul. I soak her up like a thirsty sponge, knowing that I will surrender her to an eager family, dog included, who will launch at her when we walk through the front door.

Sisters reunite with giggles, telling stories into wee hours, long past a rational bedtime. But this mother will never suggest sleep over loving connection. I sit stealthfully at the bottom of the stairs, listening with satisfaction and a full heart.

These are the moments to live for. These are the memories to cherish when babies are grown. We may lament their departure from the nest, but recognize that the space and time between us provides a new gift – the joy of reunion. We aren’t privy to it in the days of constant togetherness.

In days of yore, I would sell my right arm for a moment of solitude. Now, the frequent aloneness stretches me to a point of discomfort. But I remind myself to be flexible, that I will not break. Like the potential energy stored in elastic materials as the result of their stretching – the more stretch, the more stored energy. The more I let go, the more I appreciate the rebound of love.

The thrill of loved ones coming and going is a new joy. A new bounty to be thankful for at this year’s holiday table.

The Language of Dis-ease

UnderwaterTreasure2Illness and injury get no respect. They are the pariahs of the human experience, cast off and despised as adversaries or at the very least, inconvenient truths. If we took the time to acquaint ourselves with these repudiated occurrences, we’d not only lessen our misery but also emerge as victors who have captured an extraordinary prize.

My career allows me to work with the infirm on a daily basis. As such, I am privy to the language of dis-ease, which, I would claim, is one of the richest and most complicated languages of any I’ve heard.

Dis-ease speaks in unlimited dialects unique to each person – a language unto itself that can only be fully understood by the person to whom it is being spoken. The problem and the blessing is that most of us aren’t fluent in this language. Even those, or especially those, who suffer chronically, struggle to understand the messages of their dis-ease.

A young woman has cancer but is in denial. Months past her diagnosis she won’t let her thoughts attach to the idea that her body is under siege and could inevitably succumb. To do so would feel too vulnerable – like opening the front door and setting out a welcome mat. She pretends that she is the same woman now as she was before, fiercely self-reliant and insanely productive.

As many do, she mistakes denial for survival mentality and thinks that if she refuses to let cancer change the outward appearance of her life, it will not change the inner.

“Good idea.” we agree. “Think positive. Don’t give in.” We look on dis-ease as the ultimate enemy – the criminal who robs us. But dis-ease is not the enemy. Our resistance to it is the actual thief.

A man has had surgery after an accident and will be out of commission for weeks. He has felt angry and impatient. He berates himself for the imagined avoid-ability of it all. This is akin to thinking that one could skip 7th grade if only one had been more careful.

There are lessons to be learned from difficult times that simply cannot be passed over. Setbacks are perfectly-placed opportunities for learning. How would we learn true patience if we weren’t frustrated beyond sanity? How could we know the depths of compassion from others if we weren’t ever desperate for help?

In my children’s elementary school they set aside an educational block called WIN – What I Need. During this time, the students break off into groups tailored to an area of deficiency. Life School has What I Need. Naturally, we’d rather go to recess than to WIN. But on that one day, perhaps a very difficult day when we’ve all but given up, something clicks and we GET IT. We get that we need to:

accept help
face mortality
learn how to prioritize
ask for what we need and want
shed vanity
learn how to channel anger and jealousy
surrender our agenda…….

The lightbulb turns on and we realize what life, our teacher, has been trying to teach us all these years. We have seen this problem before – back in ‘Relationship Breakup Class’ and in ‘Becoming a New Parent Class’, and in ‘Loss of a Job Class.’ It took another crisis for us to see it, but it all makes sense now. Life, the best teacher ever, refuses to give up on us. It keeps presenting us with new opportunities to learn.

Sister found me half-asleep, curled up on a couch in a quiet room away from the other partygoers for whom I had been pretending to be well. Ever so tenderly, she covered me with a blanket then silently crept away. A single tear materialized and a relaxed rush of emotion spread through my aching body. This one simple gesture was an enormous gift of caring that moved me and saddened me. How long had it been since someone had mothered me? How long since I allowed someone to try? Sickness was the circuit-breaker that blew my fuse, presenting the darkness I needed where I wouldn’t otherwise choose to shut down the overload.

If illness is knocking at your door, you can pretend you’re not home but it won’t go away. It’s there FOR you. Everything that happens TO us happens FOR us. Perhaps, instead of cursing dis-ease, we could thank it. Even if we don’t clearly see the lesson plan, we can be assured that there is one and can be grateful that this teacher has shown up to present it.

If we refuse to stretch our awareness and refuse to relax our grip on our incomplete understanding of life, we risk becoming bitter and fear-filled. Anxiety reigns in those who believe in ghosts. Dis-ease doesn’t want to hurt us and leave us empty-handed. It’s not looking for a fight, this sheep in wolves’ clothing. It wants us to grow.

Sometimes dis-ease brings us to the brink of death and dysfunction in order to see. Don’t be afraid. Open your eyes. Look with your heart. Let your mind expand. Find the gifts that are hidden beneath the surface like buried treasure.

There is beauty in dis-ease. I insist. I’ve seen it. Not in the person who ‘survived’ for the sake of living and returning to a premorbid state of being. The real beauty is found in the vulnerable one who dares to surrender to the message. The one who says, “I accept this poker hand and I raise the bet. I bet that even if I don’t win the pot at the end, I will still have learned something about playing the game. And I am content with that.”

The Scenic Vista

scenic vistaA friend who is ahead of me in the parenting timeline predicted that my first-born would return from college with a grateful heart. The distance from home and family would create the necessary space for a paradigm shift. And so it happened in the form of a letter.

‘Dear Fam,’ it began. ‘I never realized….’

Principessa, overflowing with new-found insight, detailed aspects of our family values, traditions, and relationships like a seasoned philosopher. She thanked us for our support and expressed pride in our family. I was humbled by the sentiment. But the real reward was a section on self-reflection in which Prinicipessa’s blossoming confidence shined through.

She listed an inventory of attributes that have served her well in her first semester at college – her ‘toolkit’ she called it. It included communication skills, resilience, self-worth, humility, responsibility, hopefulness and faith – all of which she attributed to parenting skills.

When I recovered my tear-soaked eyesight, I breathed a sigh that I might have been holding onto for 18 years. Since the onset of motherhood I wondered if I was doing parenting ‘right.’ Even with the knowledge that right and perfect don’t exist, I longed for reassurance that my choices would, at the very least, have a net positive effect.

I’m still on the parenting highway with a long way to go. But this brief return of a college-aged daughter has been like a rest stop with a scenic vista. A chance to get out and stretch my weary self, breathe in the big picture, and offer gratitude for the journey.

I look back on the road we’ve travelled and wonder how we arrived safely at this point. Husband and I knew we wanted to take this family trip through life, but let’s face it, we had no idea where we were headed or how to get there. None of us do. We hop on board with the vaguest idea of what parenting has to offer.

Taking stock from this spot, I realize that this is for the best. No human can trump the trip-planning skills of life. We can prep and plan but life will take us off-road through adventures we never dreamed of.

Like a good geocacher who has found a treasure, before I leave this resting place, I will offer these nuggets of observation for those who trail me in time and space, in hopes that it will ease their journey.

  1. It’s all going to be okay. This is not to be confused with ‘nothing bad will ever happen.’ Trials will arise and roads will be blocked. Each is an invitation. You will either find your way around them or you will crash mightily. Either way, life will go on and so will you. Find comfort in that.
  2. The fact that you don’t know where you’re going doesn’t mean you won’t arrive. Just follow the signs and dare to explore. You have what it takes. I promise.
  3. Love really does conquer all. At the end of the trip, love is all that matters. Loving each other, loving the self, and loving life is the hardest, simplest, and most valuable aspiration in the world. Return to it as many times as you stray from it and it will welcome you home.

Life beckons me to return to the reality of the road where I likely will lose sight of this sweet perspective, at least temporarily. Letters of reassurance from grateful children may be far and few between. Rough travel is bound to surface and challenge my bolstered confidence in parenting. But having reached this point, I can say with certainty that the view is worth the struggle.  Stop and enjoy it when you get the chance.

The Trouble With Teens

dishesSome days I want to be done parenting. I want to clock out – not just for the night, but forever. Deep down, beyond the drudgery, I know I don’t mean this. But when the well is dry like it is tonight, I can’t fathom where I will scrape up the energy to do it again tomorrow.

Husband saw that my mothering light was extinguished sometime between a power struggle over chores and a monotonous round of shuttling thankless teens to their activities. He took over with a threat, “No ride to the gym unless those dishes are washed!” Beagle didn’t budge.

“Did you hear me?” Husband said with a more aggressive tone, trying to penetrate the Beats headphones.

With a much-too-casual attitude Beagle replied, “You weren’t serious.”

This lit Husband’s fire and he exploded on a teen who very brazenly called his bluff. I wisely left the scene in anticipation of escalating emotion – I didn’t need to be in the vicinity to hear the fallout. And I thought it best to avoid bearing witness to a potential crime.

After a dramatic round of shouting and banging of pots and pans, Husband emerged victorious with his chest puffed up a bit, patting himself on the back for showing teen son who’s boss.

A male friend commented that he was glad he never had a son because he knows that he would butt heads with a boy in a much more destructive way than with his daughter. It would be physical and loud and ugly, he postulated – just like between me and my dad. And I would win, just like my dad did.

Really? Did Dad win? Did you love your father?

No.

Did you respect him?

No. I feared him.

Did you resent him?

Absolutely. And it made me rebel even more.

Case in point. There is no winner in war. Even if both sides agree on a victor of the battle, the silent war wages on. Grudge matches ensue; both sides unwilling to declare ultimate defeat.

The trouble with teens is that they excel in the art of power struggle. One would think that a parent would too. After all, parents are just teens of yore with more experience. But we are worn out and the game is old. Teens, on the other hand, seem to have a bottomless supply of energy for sparring. It emanates from a gland that no longer serves the parent.

I hated to ruin Husband’s victory dance in the kitchen, but he needed to know the truth. Teen son had washed the dishes as commanded to do, yes. But instead of using a sponge, he had washed them with the scrub brush that is used to clean the floor.  Zing.

Wake Up By Dreaming

dream1Husband indicated that we’d be having guests so I made a salad.  (A salad?)  It was unclear how many we’d be entertaining or when.  For some reason, I wasn’t privy to the details.

In this dream, when I opened the front door to my house and peered out into the dimly lit drive, I saw a line of people extending past the end of my street.  Some I knew well, others I recognized with the vaguest recall – a brief flash of a memory connected to a stranger’s face.  Each person wore a similarly jovial and strangely familiar affect as I welcomed him or her with a handshake.  They all seemed to be in on a secret that I hadn’t yet discovered.

There were thousands of people.  In typical dream fashion, they somehow fit in my house.  And all were eating a plate of salad from the one bowl I’d made, rather like the Bible story of the Fish and The Loaves.

This wacky scene unfolded bit by bit until I realized that I was in the midst of an after-party.  All of these people were actors in a production that I starred in.  It was called ‘Deb’s Life.’  By all accounts it was a smashing success.

My guests waxed on about their favorite parts and shared hearty laughter when recalling the outtakes.  The actors and I conversed with detached amusement as if My Life wasn’t real – at least not in the sense that I thought it was.

Here we were, looking every bit authentic in our human costumes, but devoid of the personalities that were connected to the characters we played.  It was a shocking revelation that Life, and the people in it, was just a drama – a series of events concocted for…what? Entertainment? Learning?

The one common thread was that each of the players in my story loved me.  They had been cast in my life by a legendary director and they cherished the chance to be a part of it.

Even the people with whom I had known only angst appeared now to be such close friends.  “I love you so much that I agreed to the role of aggressor,”  a man said.  “You were brilliant – the way you played the victim, and the way you overcame it!”

I began to see each person , each event, in symbolic terms, without emotion or judgment.  The friend who had betrayed me in Life embraced me now and I returned the gesture.  There was no need for apologies, for there was nothing to forgive.  Life, the show, had been perfectly executed.

The lesson in the dream was clear:  Life is an illusion, one that easily sucks you into the belief in its realness.  But things are never exactly as they seem.  Trials are not punishments, they are gifts.  And nothing , no one, is insignificant in this adventure.  The discoveries and contributions of every single life, no matter how large or small, difficult or easy, are added to the whole perfect picture.  Each soul has its place and purpose.  Each gives and receives to the others to create one big, beautiful, perpetual story.

“And so it comes to pass that each precious heart beats in all subsequent generations forevermore.”  – Mike Dooley

Halfway – Reflections From a Birthday Girl

twin peaks with flagI’ve reached an imagined halfway point – halfway between birth and death.  Research tells me that barring fatal accident or illness I could live to 90 years old, which sounds like a long time but it’s tricky to resist the ‘getting old’ mentality when wrinkles and joint aches pile up.

I’ve flirted with the idea of death and decline before, as have an increasing number of my middle-aged friends thanks to the ‘Big C’ and other cradle-robbing diagnoses.  What I’ve discovered is that if you marinate in fear of aging you’ll turn sour and ruin any chance of enjoying a delicious life.

I’m not the first philosopher to uncover the revelation that what matters is not how long one lives but rather how.  How have I lived? In themed decades, it seems.

In my teens I worried a lot. (About being popular and pretty and smart.)

In my twenties I dreamed a lot. (About success and family)

In my thirties I did a lot. (Bore children, cared for a house and a career.)

And in my forties, so far, I’ve learned a lot. About life.

Mainly I’ve learned that the older I get the less I know. In young adulthood I was so sure of everything.  The sky was blue, personal safety was my birthright and friends would be friends forever.  But maturity has a way of blending black and white certainty into a canvas of gray.  Losses and disappointments pile up alongside victories – twin peaks of the same mountain – and blur what once seemed so clear.  One day, maybe on a birthday, you stand atop the mountain and gaze across the horizon wondering, ‘what’s it all about and what happens now?’

In many ways I am at my peak.  I suspect I’ll spend some time here enjoying the view from the top. But I already feel the pull to begin my descent.  Life calls me to finish my journey in forward motion and not squander it with wishful thinking, refusing to budge from this sweet, sweet spot.

I know I won’t travel the same path down the mountain that I chose on the way up. I’ll bypass the gullies of naïveté and ambition and stop more frequently to cherish a loving gesture. I’ll be in less of a hurry to reach my destination and more willing to put aside my agenda in favor of lending a hand.  And I will love every step and misstep because it will remind me that I am still living.  Not just alive, but living.

In a sense I’ll be un-learning all the things that sustained me on the first half of my journey; gracefully (I hope) unraveling the knots of the rope that I climbed on the way up.  When all is said and done and I return to my starting point, I hope to look back with satisfaction knowing that no matter how many travel this way again, the mountain will never be climbed exactly as I climbed it.  No one can do or see or be exactly like me.  Each of us is unrepeatable.

 

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” – Abraham Lincoln

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