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.

Fighting With Teens

gun fightThey say you shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight. But if you don’t realize that teen son is packing heat, you arrive unprepared and end up getting shot.

I knew that Beagle wouldn’t welcome the punishment I was prepared to dole out, despite the fact that he was undeniably guilty. I expected recoil. But I upped the ante when, moments before our showdown, I unveiled an unrelated infraction for which I decided to deliver a stern lecture. Tacking this layer onto my agenda was a bad idea.

My carefully prepared speech went out the window with my civility and before I knew it, shots were fired. Accusations and judgments were flying back and forth with escalated voices. It was a verbal brawl of mammoth proportions – the kind in which things are said that have never surfaced before. Unspoken judgments on another’s essential character and personality, that when revealed, can cause irreparable damage.

Somewhere between “you’re the worst mother ever” and “I can’t do anything to please you” Beagle drew his weapon and shot me directly in the chest. “I HATE YOU!!!!!” he declared. My body recoiled from the impact. I might have slumped to the ground had I not been leaning against a table. The fire in my beloved son’s eyes, the stone-cold look on his face….he meant it. And it hurt. Really bad.

Fighting back tears with dwindling resolve, I squeaked out one last explanation. “Parents yell when they’re afraid. Im afraid for you. That’s all it is.”

I’m afraid that my son will become an addict. I’m afraid that he’ll die in a car accident, impregnate a girl, flunk out of school, or, heaven forbid, forget to say please and thank you. Seriously, the scope of my parental concerns is deep. Mostly, the fear is wrapped up neatly in a rationale mind. But when unleashed, it runs wild, creating a storm of discontent for everyone.

Husband tried patching my wound with positive affirmations and a reminder that rebelling is part of the natural course when a child pulls away from the family. Agreed, but do they have to shoot you to make sure you don’t follow?

Early the next morning I drove to a yoga class where I fantasized that I’d find the Buddha himself handing out peace on a platter. Instead I found Joe, a fellow yogi, who happened to be waxing on about the wonderful relationship he had with his grown son. I muttered something about my own sad state of affairs, expecting him not to understand. He must be one of those lucky parents who got a rare unicorn in the form of a trouble-less child.

Dearest Joe rolled his eyes and groaned as he recalled his own experience of parenting teens. “There was a LOT of screaming.” this mild-mannered man revealed. “It was hell.”

Hope coursed through me. Joe and his son were living proof that the wounds inflicted from teendom can heal.

I’d be the first to tell the mother of a rambunctious toddler, “Don’t worry. It’s all a phase. Ride the waves.” But in this tsunami of teen parenting, I can’t even find my surf board most of the time, never mind ‘ride the wave.’

Beagle and I are recovering from our assault on each other. There’s lots of tiptoeing around and polite exchange of pleasantries. Soon, I expect, we will overcompensate with kindness in the way of apology. Eventually the wounds will close but they will, no doubt, leave a scar. How can they not? Silly, hurtful humans.

Friend reminds me of a time in the recent past when Beagle headed off to a sketchy situation with some knowledge of the inherent danger. He ran out the door with his back to my well-wishes and cautionary words. Ten seconds later he reappeared through half-opened door to say, “Mom, if I die today I just want you to know – you did a good job.” And then he was gone.

I will take that little gem now and hold it to my heart. Evidence that love is real. No matter how ugly we get on the outside, we still cherish each other on the inside – where it matters most.

The Grace of Parenting

mother_child_4Bringing my daughter to tears on the first day of Middle School was not one of my shining moments. More

The New You

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image credit purefunfit.com

Dearest Daughter,

I love that you so clearly wrote your feelings in response to my spontaneous comment about not liking the New You.  I am equally unhappy that your email was written at 1:00 a.m.!  Why? Because that is very late and I worry, as mothers do.

I try hard not to share my worries because I want to project confidence for you.  Deep down, I believe that you’ll be fine, even when you make poor choices or even good choices that I don’t like.  I believe in fate and God and the goodness of Life.  But my human-ness and my mom-ness continue to plague me with what-if scenarios.

When you were a clumsy toddler, I watched with fear as you climbed a playground structure.  My hands were never far from your body, waiting – expecting – to have to catch you.  My mothering instinct is to protect.  Over the years, I’ve learned to subdue the urge to rescue you, even when you begged me.  Case in point: making you call the orthodontist to let him know that, again, you need to replace your retainer.  And that you will be paying for it.

While punishing me as a child, my mother told me, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”  I didn’t believe her.  I do now.  It hurts me to see you struggle, even when I know it will result in your favor.

As the first-born you bear the task of paving roads.  All along the way, my parental inexperience has been your guide.  You are my first child to leave the nest and I am learning how to reconcile my heartbreak with my pride.  Both emotions are strong and are battling for victory.

Last night, you captured a heartfelt but selfish comment from me.  When I said that I don’t like the new you, I misspoke.  I love all versions of you.  What I dislike is the feeling that my world is changing so drastically and so quickly.  You are living life your way, not my way, as it should be.  I envision myself grasping for the rope that tethers your boat to the dock.  But your ship is ready to sail.

You are branching out toward unfamiliar experiences, taking advantage of the bounty of youth, and it’s difficult for me to watch.  But my skepticism is not an indication of the rightness or wrongness of your choices.  As you pointed out in defense, you are consciously taking risks and risks are essential to growth.

Principessa, I trust in your core values.  I believe your intentions are pure.  You don’t disappoint me.  And I could never think less of you.

Thank you for pointing out that it’s also hard for you to see yourself changing.  We know that change is essential and beneficial but it’s often scary.  Now that we’ve exposed our mutual fear and shined a light on it, it looks less daunting.  Let’s agree that we won’t let fear get the best of us.

You worry that you’ll become someone you don’t recognize.  It’s true that you’ll stray from the person you’ve been, but you can’t lose yourself.  There is a part in each of us that is connected to our source. It cannot be severed. You are, and always will be, uniquely you by divine design.

If you forget who you are, how special and precious, just ask me.  I will pour my love into your heart and remind you of your value. As always, I will be here, with arms outstretched, ready to catch you if you fall.

Loving you more than you can imagine,

Mom

dr seuss you

The Cheating Scandal

confirmationI may be going to hell.

Before I divulge the reason, I wish to make a statement on my own behalf. The following is an account of an isolated incident which has no bearing on my core standards as a parent.

Beagle missed the appointed Religious Education class during which he was meant to take an exam in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. So he had a make-up exam on his own time, in a private room, in which I joined him due to lack of waiting space.

Prior to the test date, I tried in vain to get Beagle to study. In a show of teenage defiance he staunchly refused. So of course he didn’t know the material. Beagle is a good student, unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable with, failing. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his leg started tapping nervously.

In my hand was the study guide that had been provided. It asked for lists: 10 commandments, 5 precepts, 7 sacraments….on and on. As I looked over the questions, I realized that I, a lifelong Catholic with a parochial school education, would struggle with this test. On the spot I made a radical decision to slip the answers to Beagle.

Pause for gasps and harsh judgment.

Did she just admit to helping her son cheat on a religious exam?!

Indeed I did.

Husband and I decided long ago that we would raise well-informed, well-rounded little people. This included a plan to study and practice religion within the parameters of our faith. We also agreed that it is foolhardy to expect them to embrace it any more than they embrace quadratic equations. Both are full of unknown variables and require a level of understanding that taxes the brain.

Beagle has been struggling in his faith. He likes to provoke me by claiming atheism.

“How can you quit on God when you’ve barely met Him?” I ask.

Despite his resistance, Beagle decided to go through with Confirmation. He took the name of St. Thomas because Thomas was a doubter, too.

The bishop started his homily with words of encouragement to all the parents, grandparents and godparents in attendance. He said, “You will not be judged by your child’s adherence – (or lack thereof) – to his faith…..You have done what you could. Now it’s up to him.”

I could be wrong, but I think the bishop looked directly at me and bestowed an absolution for my collusion in the cheating scandal.

When all was said and done, I quizzed Beagle. I needed one last attempt to affirm that he had learned something about religion in the past 16 years. “Just tell me, in your own words, what the Church wants you to know about being a good person.”

Beagle replied, “Don’t diss your parents. Don’t smack talk your neighbor. Don’t cheat on your wife or your god if you have one. Don’t kill, steal or do other things you know are wrong. And go to church every once in a while.”

I think he got the gist of it.

City Girl In The Country: Lost – My Messy Beautiful

Lost. My Messy BeautifulHusband says I can get lost in my own backyard. He exaggerates. The fact that I couldn’t find my way home from Peach’s dance class when we first moved to the country and had to call him to send up a flare, is not ample evidence. To a city girl, everything looks the same in the woods.

Fortunately, I’m not afraid to ask for directions. Like the time at the hardware store when the kindly gentleman employee, noticing my bewilderment, asked if he could help me. “Yes,” I gratefully replied. “I’m looking for caulk.”  The stunned, red-faced man led me silently to aisle 5.

Life is a maze – one in which I am frequently befuddled. And scared. Sometimes it seems that there is no difference between the middle-aged me and the eight year old me who cried her way through an amusement park after getting stuck in the glass maze. Or the teenage me on the first day of Sophomore year in a new school who burst into tears from the stress of being the new kid in a paralyzing scene of adolescent frenzy.

Perhaps this explains why a girl who failed Geography is addicted to maps and has a pet name for her GPS. And why my favorite job in college was Orientation Guide – leading packs of overwhelmed families through the labyrinth of an urban University Campus. Guiding is the antithesis of being lost.

When I see a panicked child in a store or a dog wandering the streets, I cannot rest until it is reunited with its family. Helping the lost is akin to reaching out the hand that knows what it’s like to tremble with fear and grasping another to steady it.

One day, I found a boy at the beach who was clearly too young to be alone. I detained the happy little chap until his mother arrived on the scene, frantic. Scooping him up, she admonished him for wandering off. His precious rebuttal to her fear was, “I not lost, Momma. I right here.” Clever lad. He knew that wherever he went, there he was. Why waste time worrying about where you’re supposed to be when the place you’re at is so magnificent?

I’m sure it’s magical for some people, like Husband, to explore the unknown and find his own way. Say, for example, in Disney World. But for those of us in need of a plan, there are at least three books that one might read on how to negotiate this particular adventure with efficiency. If these two very different people attempt to vacation together, they might argue a lot and vow never to vacation together again. Not that this happened to me. Just sayin’.

In the Adventure Park of Life, if given the choice, I opt for the guided tour. And I know I’m not alone. When I Google ‘How to deal with anger,’ I don’t even have to finish typing the sentence before several of the most frequently requested answers pop up. People want to KNOW. They don’t want to struggle.

That being said, I’ve learned to appreciate uncertainty and to find the humor in feeling lost.   Because the truth is, I’ve never not been found. When I was lost in sorrow, love found me. When I was lost in chaos, clarity found me.

Life, it turns out, is not the terrifying place I imagined. Writing about it reminds me of this. When I find myself confused about life’s challenges, writing sheds light on the internal compass, which is a heck of a lot more interesting to follow than a real compass. It takes me to places I never knew existed. And then, of course, I want to lead others to these places. So I share my thoughts with you and hope that the little match I’ve lit will light your way too.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” He is smarter than Husband who tells me, “You’re hopeless without a map.” But Husband is cuter and has a tremendous sense of direction. When we married, my first choice for our wedding song was Follow Me Follow You by Genesis. Husband said it was too hard to dance to. But I think the real issue was his disagreement with the ‘I will follow you’ part. He was understandably nervous, given my track record.

My lost-ness is a well-honed skill. I rather excel at it. It’s not much to brag about, but I’m sort of attached to it.

 

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

 

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The Death Watch

death watchI recall a promise made to myself in childhood ignorance – I will not become a bitter adult.’  It was clear to me that adulthood had the potential to suck the fun out of life.  Heavy responsibilities weighed down the big people.  They seemed to smile less and complain more.  Cynicism leaked from their pores as a result of letting life’s ugliness seep in.

As I walked into the wake for a neighbor who committed suicide, I felt myself becoming that bitter adult.  This was not the first time I’d been to a wake of this sort, but no matter the circumstances, death has a way of interrupting a harmonious , if not ignorant, mindset.

In coping with this loss, I cling to the wisdom that the only real suffering comes from believing that things should be different.  ‘Resist nothing,’ say the experts, because resisting only prolongs misery.  Trying to manipulate life is like trying to sculpt concrete with your hands.  Hard as we try, we’ll never crack the code with human reason.  Life will continue to astonish us no matter how much of it we’ve experienced. And it will end when it wants to.

Enter the ‘Death Watch’ – an actual device that bases the date of your death on a series of medical questions in the hope of inspiring people to make the most of their remaining time.  The watch shows the amount of time you are estimated to have left in years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds. Yikes!

In theory, I see how it could be valuable to know how much time one has left on earth.  I had my own death countdown experience that yielded a wealth of insight.  But being cognizant at every moment of the impermanence of one’s existence is no picnic.  This is territory that should be tread-on carefully.  That being said, could it change the world for the better?  One of the first reactions I heard when my neighbor died was, “I should have been nicer to him.”  Would we treat people better if we knew the end – ours or theirs – was near?

Death is a reminder.  It screams so loudly that we have no choice but to listen.  Every passing is an opportunity to delve deeper into this wild existence.  It is a chance to bear witness.  What I witnessed this week was a controversial life and death.  No two opinions or reactions about this man were alike.  Yet still there is a common thread – Every Life Is Meaningful.  Not one person has more right to be on earth than another.  Each life has its place and its perfect timeline, whether we agree with it or not.

Perhaps that timeline is better marked by a Now Watch instead of a Death Watch.

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When focused on the Now, we see that there are no problems.  Problems only exist in the past (coulda, shoulda, woulda) or in the future (I hope not…I fear that….)  Staying present to each moment as it unfolds allows us to bring our whole selves to any situation, thereby warding off regret and worry.

I doubt I’ll ever make friends with Death, it scares me so.  But I respect it and am learning to trust it, because I know that it possesses a wisdom beyond my understanding.  My name is on Death’s calendar along with everyone else’s and I don’t want to know where.  For now, I’d like to live in blissful ignorance, enjoying life whilst Death knocks on someone else’s door.

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