Thursday, January 5, 2017

On Imitation and Vulnerability

Put your ego aside, listen to those crossing your path; they may hold the key you have been looking for.  --Martin Suarez

There was a time when the Heir would complain constantly, as eldest children tend to do, about the Spare. 

"MOM, Ben's bugging me."
"MOM, Ben's following me."
"MOM, tell Ben to stop copying me."

Tired of breaking up the endless fights, I sat the Heir down one day for a little tête-à-tête. 

Me: "Why do you think he does these things?"

Jacob: "To bug me."

Me: "BZZT. That's what bullies do. This is your brother we're talking about. Try again."

Jacob: *blinks*

Me: "Do you really not see it? Ben does these things because he doesn't just look up to you. He worships you. He wants to be just like you."  

Jacob: *skeptical look but still listening*

I pull out some baby pictures for effect. 

Me: "Look at this. You're sitting on the floor looking at supermarket flyers, just like Dad does, marker in hand. Now look at Ben. He's in his bouncy seat with a million toys attached to it, and what is he staring at?"

Jacob: "Me."

Me: "Here you are playing with your trains, and Ben is in his swing. What is he looking at?"

Jacob: "Me."

Me: "Like me and Dad, you've been a constant in his life since he was born. You've always been here, down on his level. You're a kid, like him, whereas we were the big adults. You're a boy, like him, where the other mainstay in his everyday world was me, a girl. He's been studying you since he could see, trying to figure out how to emulate you, and he still is. Only now you're a cool and talented teenager with lots of friends and he's a new freshman trying to find his way in high school. Of course he's going to copy you. You're living the best life and he's trying to figure out how to do the same. He loves you, Jacob. You're his awesome big brother, and always have been. He does these things because he wants your attention. But he's obnoxious because he doesn't want you to see how much it hurts when you dismiss him. He's hiding his vulnerability so you won't see his pain."

Well. This must have shocked Jacob because he didn't know what to say, other than, "Really?" He took some time to absorb it, and watch his brother to test my theory. 

What's happened since has been a seismic shift in the family dynamic. Jacob is patient with his brother, not short. He doesn't ignore Ben's questions as "coming from a little kid," but now seems to see them for what they are: a search for big-brother wisdom. They dab* and joke together. They work together in the morning--Jacob wakes Ben up and Ben does what he needs to to make sure they're out on time, since Jacob often drives them to school. Jacob suggests a stop at Dunkin' Donuts on the way to school, but it means getting up and leaving earlier; Ben rises to the challenge (no pun intended). This is a big deal because Ben is NOT a morning person. But at the request of his brother, he becomes one. 

The biggest change I've seen, though, is in the ripple effects in both boys. Ben's confidence is higher. He doesn't apologize all the time. He's not whiny. He seems more mature, and I know it's because he feels valued. Not just by his parents; their opinions don't mean the same thing. He feels valued and respected, in actions and words, by the person who most influences his life right now as he wades through the world of high school: his big brother. He's no longer playing the role of "annoying little sibling." He's less obnoxious, less guarded, more real.

Jacob also seems more confident. He's less defensive, and doesn't tense up when his brother's around, no longer waiting for the jab or interruption. No longer viewing himself as merely Ben's target for torment, he feels important because his brother cares deeply what he thinks and how he navigates the world. His actions have weight: someone important is watching and learning from them, so he is careful to make sure they matter, that they teach the right lessons. 

A family therapist I worked with once told me that helping to build the bond between siblings is the greatest gift a parent can give her children. At first I didn't really understand, but as I've grown older, I see how right she was. One day, my husband and I will be gone. All our boys will have left of our little family is each other. Each will be the only other person who remembers their shared childhood and the same family memories. How magical that they should be friends now, at this formative time of their lives. How inspiring that by shifting their views, they've come to understand each other's motives and thereby dropped their guards, no longer afraid to show their vulnerabilities. 

Yesterday Ben finally agreed to get a haircut (it was past time). When he was done, we went to the mall because he wanted a beanie. His brother has one and wears it all the time. Ben had tried it on and liked it, then decided he wanted one too. We looked at different patterns, styles and colors but in the end, he chose one exactly like his brother's. 

When he got home and showed his brother, Jacob didn't get angry that Ben was copying him. Instead, he gave him instructions on how to wear it, and this morning they left the house together in matching hats, their laughter echoing in the house long after they'd gone.

*Dab: To give a sharp nod to your raised forearm. Dance with sharp nods repeated. To acknowledge.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Living In A Post-Hope World

There's a lot of hate in the air since the election. Sadly, there's a lot in my house as well.

-I hate that my children had to keep asking me if I was OK because I randomly started crying every day right after the election was over;

-I hate that I have lost so much hope and optimism for myself and my family's future;

-I hate feeling afraid all the time, both for what this will mean for our nation as a whole and for everyone who is going to suffer under the new administration;

-I hate that the Electoral College effectively showed they didn't care that a person so completely unfit to lead our country is about to be handed power;

-I hate that more bad news about the people being hired for the administration comes out every day, and

-I hate that, although I need to look away for my own health and sanity, I struggle because when I do it feels like I'm ignoring the problem.

The new president-elect has effectively told the world that I suck at parenting. For seventeen years, I've been teaching my children to share, be kind, be respectful and earn respect through their own actions. I've taught them that 'hate' is a very strong and ugly word and we don't just throw it around (except maybe when talking about homework).

By electing a man who personifies and encourages all the behaviors I've told my children are unacceptable, my country has proven it's not the country I thought it was. It's not the world I thought I was preparing my children to live in. My America was the one where every parent taught their children these lessons, instilling in them and our society hope for a peaceful, respectful future full of possibility and problem solvers. Clearly I lived in a bubble. I hate that too.

My question to myself following this change is, what do I tell my children now? Now that a man who bullies others has been chosen to lead us all? Now, when they see other children on their school bus being teased, harassed or getting hateful comments thrown at them? Now, when the adults on the bus look the other way?

Our family is not one of color. My children are not female. We were all born here. This means that we are less likely to be targets of hate crimes. We are "safe". But really, we're not. Not when hatred and ugliness and a lack of civility and humanity surrounds us. Not when we no longer know who we can rely on to act as we do. My children are not bullies, but they need to be prepared to stand up to bullies now. Because they won't just be speaking up for themselves or even all children, but for all people--our friends and neighbors, their fellow classmates and even those they don't know.

I hate the uncertainty of our future.

I hate feeling disappointed in my country.

Most of all, I used to have hope for our society and its future, because we had leaders who were taking us in a positive, respectful direction. That's no longer the case. My hope is gone. I hate that I can't just "wait and see what happens" as people are telling me to do. I already see what's happening, and our new "leader" isn't even in office yet.

Hope has not served me well this year. 2017 will therefore be a year of action, in which I do my best to stamp out hate and maybe, maybe restore some hope.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Generational Convergence

Over the past few years, I've learned that the Heir is the grandson every senior citizen would love to have. He's a helper. He's patient. He's diplomatic and kind. And he knows technology. By volunteering at the library to help local senior citizens with their technology, he learned this too. E-readers? Ipads? Laptops? Printers? Cell phones? If you've got questions, he's got answers. Of course he was groomed by helping his own grandparents, so this seemed a natural transition. But I have to admit, the former IT Help Desk manager in me is very proud of his professionalism in dealing with strangers this way.
One day after work, he came home from the library and mentioned that he'd met a man who reminded him of his late Grandpa. 

The Heir: "He was really smart and sweet." 

Me: "Oh yes? What did he need? Were you able to help him?"

The Heir: "Yeah, I showed him how to set up a profile at an online dating site."

Me: ....

What struck me most about the conversation was that, to The Heir, this was no big deal. Just another day at work. But to me, it was surprising. Which of course begged the question, what does that say about me?

For one thing, senior dating sites exist for a reason. There's a demand and people older than me don't stop living and dating and loving just because they are widowed or divorced or... older than me. I admit none of this had ever crossed my radar. So I had to examine why. Was I stereotyping? Biased? Part of the problem in today's society that overlooks and underestimates the aging population on a regular basis?

The kindest answer that made the most sense is that my parents and in-laws all had marriages that lasted over 50 years. Till death did they part, in the case of my in-laws, and my parents are still alive and well and together. 

But the truthful answer is, I am blind to the needs of our population's seniors. I don't think about them because I don't have to. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't. They are part of my community and, as my son's actions reminded me, can benefit from services and people in that community, including me.

I have no personal experience with seniors who want to date. The fact that options exist for them, and that this man was brave enough to go to the library and ask for help in utilizing said options, from a teenager no less, made me smile. 

I hope never to be in the situation where I need to date again. But if I am, I hope I have the guts to go outside my comfort zone as this man did. I hope to have the options my community offers its seniors, and that the teenager who helps me is as kind, patient and genuinely caring as the Heir was. 

And if I'm honest, I hope I'm lucky enough to meet a man like the one he met at the library. I'd love to tell him the story of how once, when he was a teenager, my son helped a stranger--and me--learn something new.