Friday, October 27, 2017

Differential Equations

Though experts say you should never compare siblings to each other, it's almost impossible not to. While I appreciate the distinctions between the Heir and the Spare, and parent each one differently as a result, sometimes the evidence of those distinctions is sharp.

The other day, I was driving in the car with the Spare in the passenger seat. He was watching a video on his phone and I was listening to the radio. A YES song came on, triggering many vivid memories of a summer from my youth, and I turned up the volume. The Spare proceeded to turn up the sound on his video. I increased the radio, he upped his video. We quickly reached a standoff.

"Really?" I asked. "You do realize this is YES, right? A classic song by a classic band? You should listen to it, seriously. They lyrics alone are amazing."

At this point, he conceded that he could just pause his video and listen, which he did. But I couldn't stop thinking of what a stark difference the situation was from similar instances with the Heir. In those cases, a song would come on the radio, we'd both reach to turn up the volume and then both start singing, one of us the melody and the other the harmony, while the Spare rolled his eyes in the back seat and plugged in his ear buds.

This is just one example of how dissimilar the Spare's and my personalities are. I'm not complaining, it's just interesting. When he and his father are together, they share everything related to food, sports and nature. They really are of like minds. But my husband and I are also very similar in many ways, so it's surprising to me that sometimes, the Spare and I seem so very different.

In moments like this, I miss the Heir. I miss moments of shared excitement over something as small as a song on the radio we can sing along to together. Perhaps that's why, in the last few days, I'd be in the middle of a task and a not-yet-conscious thought worked its way forward in my mind. "Where is Jacob today and will he be home for dinner?" Or, "what time do I have to pick Jacob up again?" When I became fully conscious of each thought, it made me sad to realize he won't be home until Thanksgiving week.

I get the whole empty nest concept, and will surely miss both my sons dearly when they've moved out of our home for good. But with the Heir gone, I think I'm feeling it much more acutely than I will when the Spare heads out on his own. And it's likely my husband will feel then what I'm feeling now.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Strength Training

The dynamic shift in our household over the last month has been unlike any we've had since the Spare was born and the Heir, up until then the only child, had to welcome him into our home. This time, though, the process was the opposite: our nest has dwindled to three.

The most interesting thing to me has been watching the brothers blossom apart from each other. Being the worrying type, my concerns were that homesickness at college and a lack of time-management skills would throw my freshman into a deep hole of overdue work he'd never be able to escape. At home, I feared my high schooler's keen sadness in missing his brother, who had been his guide and advocate all last year, and a subsequent regression to old patterns of handling school work (read: not doing it).

The Heir is settling into college well. He's enjoying his classes, making friends, doing his own laundry(!) and living independently for the first time in his life. There's one course he's struggling with, and we've discussed how to approach it and options he has available. But the decision will ultimately have to be his.

At home, the Spare has begun his sophomore year of high school, reconnected with old friends and taken control of his work in a way he hasn't before now. He seems more mature, eager to take on responsibilities and happy to bask in the only-child glow for the first time in his life. But homework is becoming more frequent, and he pushes back when I make suggestions on how to better handle an assignment. Whatever he hands in, he'll have to live with the consequences of his efforts. Again, the decision will ultimately have to be his.

Amid this swirl of change, I looked forward to showering the Spare with all the attention he never received back when I had to split my time between two children (a.k.a. his whole life). I also made lists for care packages to send to the Heir and mapped out when I'd be able to write and edit my book.

But I never really considered what my own adjustments might be, so I didn't account for the quiet. I didn't schedule time for the vacancy. I find myself missing the Heir's laugh, his puns, his cooking, his hugs. I knew it would happen, but didn't know when. Like something akin to grief, it sneaks up on me at odd moments: when I'm trying to work out a plot point, when I'm making tea, when I'm reading an article I know he'd like.

It turns out we are all wobbling a little at the shift in dynamic, feeling our way into unchartered waters. For all of us, the change is just part of growing up. I imagine it will take a few months until we've settled into our new routines and habits, and in that time, I expect we'll build some never-before-used muscles: self-reliance, budding maturity, strength to let go. My hope is that we'll also gain an appreciation for those we love, as well as what we can do with them, and without them, by our sides.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


It's been a pretty emotional few months. Well, for Mom, anyway. We had a lot of endings. What's funny is that, before they occurred, I didn't think of them as endings. They were events, celebrations, performances, things we do each year with The Heir. But then they started coming one after the other, speeding into me like a freight train with so many cars that you lose count, and with each one I realized: This is his last high school musical. His last high school concert. His last Boy Scout achievement. His last day of high school. All those 'lasts' finally hammered into my head the fact I'd been denying until now: nothing lasts.

Last autumn, I'd anticipated an insane second half to his senior year, and told him he likely would not be able to perform in the spring musical. He was working, had finals, college commitments and an Eagle Scout project to finish. There just wouldn't be time for all those rehearsals.
"But mom, what if they do Les Miserables?" Les Miserables is his all time favorite musical, the one that introduced him to what musicals were about (thank you, Hugh Jackman). "Fine, if they do Les Miserables, you can be in it. But they can't. It's still on Broadway." Bullet: dodged. Or so I thought. Until I got a text in late December."Mom. Guess what musical they're doing in the spring. GO AHEAD. GUESS." Damn. That's right, Les Miserables. There was no way I could say no. But he did it. He did it all. He finished his college forms. He performed in Les Mis. He finished his Eagle Scout project and paperwork and earned the badge. And he graduated. Now it's all behind us. All that activity! All those demands! They were met, and I'm so, so proud of him. We've since moved on to a summer job and shopping for college, and in a few short weeks, all that will be behind us too. The  one thing I keep waiting to put behind me is the tears, but for some reason, I have a feeling those will hang around. It seems ridiculous. This was the goal since he was born! Raise him to be a strong, happy, capable guy who could go off and live his own life! Yeah, yeah, I know that. Mission accomplished! I am thrilled about that. I just didn't think it would happen so soon

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.