Friday, September 20, 2019

Animal Instincts

Teenagers! My guess is that anyone, even people without children, know exactly what I'm talking about with that one word. Because teenagers have a reputation. They're surly and unpredictable. Emotional one minute and ambivalent the next. They'll engage you in a heated fight over something as banal as a dirty dish in the sink, but offer only monosyllabic grunts in reply to questions about their friends, schedule, and life plans. At times, I feel like I'm trying to parent an exotic animal. They really should come with a user manual.

Just this week, the Spare was scheduled to have his senior portrait taken at school. Yes, my baby is in his last year of high school. Don't ask me where the time went. I'm sure it's in the secret location where all the missing socks are hiding, along with my sanity and once-tiny waist. But I digress. I'd worked with the Spare over the weekend to find a clean dress shirt and suit jacket that fit, as well as an acceptable tie. We created a Windsor knot so the tie could be slipped over his head and tightened for the sitting, then immediately removed lest any of his peers see him. We arranged for me to bring the shirt, jacket and tie to school before the sitting so he could change, have his photo taken, and then change back into street clothes. I also brought along a hairbrush.

I arrived early and handed over the goods. From the huff and glare I received at proffering the hairbrush, you'd think I suggested he change clothes in the school's common area.

"Mom. I don't care about my hair."

Look, I get it. He's a boy. He shuns the spotlight. And here's his mom telling him how to dress and to fix his hair. But I'd already made this session as easy for him as possible, so this was it. This was the hill I was going to die on.

"Listen, kid. This is the last school picture I'm going to get. It's going to cost hundreds of dollars and I'm going to send it to all your relatives. Then I'm going to frame it and hang it on my wall so I can stare at your baby face when you're away at college and cry over how fast the years have gone. And I'd rather you not be sporting a cowlick in it. Brush your hair."

Perhaps stunned that I would whisper-shout at him in the middle of his school, or processing this new perspective I'd just thrown at him, he was silent. There might even have been a hint of fear that I might do something even more embarrassing if he tried to push back again. Regardless, he took the brush and went down the hall to change. 

A few minutes later, I helped him fix his collar, straighten the tie, and insisted he button the top shirt button. Then with both of us grumbling, I followed him into the photo shoot. While the photographer instructed him on how to tilt his head and hold the props, I stewed in the nearby seats and scrolled through my phone. Why does he have to make everything so difficult? It feels like he's fighting me just to fight. A few minutes later, the photographer brought his camera over and flipped through the pictures so I could see what he'd captured.

As I looked through those photos of my baby-- this one in a suit and tie, that one in a cap and gown--I loved each one more than the last. Yet I didn't weep. Because I was still a teensy bit angry about our spat. That's when I realized what perfectly brilliant animals teenagers are. They know they'll be leaving soon, and their instinct is to push away from us at every turn in order to make it easier on all of us. And it worked.

After the session, the Spare changed, handed me back the jacket and tie, and walked down the hallway without a word. He left me with no goodbye, no thank you, and no idea how much mortification he'd just avoided by giving me grief. And even though I was still angry, I had to laugh.

Photo credit: "218/365 - 5/14/2011" by GabrielaP93 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Mothering The World

Last night, I dreamt of babies--pudgy infants chewing fists, sleepy toddlers rubbing eyes. These babies were strangers, but alone and unsure of the world and looking to me for comfort.

In the dreams, I knew who the parents were, though I hadn't met them personally. In one instance, a toddler girl wanted her mom, who had just stepped away. I picked her up and explained Mom would be right back, then chatted with her about birds and cows, and sang songs I thought she'd know. It was a game, to distract her and help her feel safe.

In another dream, a quiet, months-old boy and I were in the yard of the house where I grew up. His parents hadn't yet returned from house-hunting in my neighborhood, and he was getting anxious. For a while, I pushed him in a baby swing. Then I put him into his jammies, and taught him some basic ASL signs as I'd done with my own boys when they were his age. Because babies can understand spoken language long before they can physically form words with their mouths, sign language helps them communicate before they can speak. Knowing simple words like eat, sleep, sad and hurt can minimize frustration-driven tantrums by allowing pre-verbal children to make their needs known.

Upon reflection this morning, I think my dreams were driven by a variety of factors. One was my own experience as a mother, and the desire to do everything in my power to ensure my sons were secure, healthy, and happy. The other was this week's disturbing photos and reports of children who'd been separated from their families at the borders of our country.

Making sure young children feel secure is the foundation on which their emotional growth is built. A strong foundation paves the way for healthy relationships with others and the world. Conversely, the biological response to trauma or severe stress can be incredibly destructive, causing lifelong damage. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, while some stress in life is normal—and even necessary for development—the type of stress a child experiences may become toxic "when there is strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship."

The adult world is scary and dangerous. But when my children were very young, I was their world. Whenever they were scared or upset, they came to me for comfort. When describing their nightmares, they painted frightening scenarios of being in danger, and either they couldn't find me, or they couldn't get to me.

I want to soothe the children I've seen crying on the front pages of newspapers. They look frightened, alone, and powerless. They don't understand what's happening, and their parents are no longer with them. I want to mother them until their mothers return. I want to allay their fears and comfort them and tell them everything will be okay. Of course, I don't know that everything will be okay. But I never have, not even when my own children were small. I told them it would be okay anyway, because I didn't want them to worry. It was my job to do the worrying for them.

A mother's love is boundless and protective, and my desire to shower it on all children may be irrational, but it's not a choice: it's instinctual. My arms reflexively open to every frightened child and crying baby I see.

I know I can't mother all the suffering children in the world, and that frustration is what invaded my dreams last night. I've felt this way before. But this is the first time I've ever wished the desire alone could transcend the reason for their suffering, that the desire alone was enough to make them feel my love.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Setting the Bar

I have a love/hate relationship with expectations. As a service provider, I know how critically important it is to set them appropriately. When each party knows what they're getting and giving, there's little room for undue disappointment. But setting expectations in parenting is different. We're talking about potential--what a kid should or should not be able to achieve at a certain age. While I've always thought of expectations as a way to help my kids stretch their abilities, I recently learned that if I'm not careful, they can also have the opposite effect. 

I loved that The Spare's freshman year of high school was a sort of 'joint venture' with the Heir,  a senior. It helped the Spare feel safe and welcomed in the new school; he made friends with older students, and knew his brother had his back. 

But this year, The Spare headed off to high school on his own. No, he didn't have his brother's guiding presence, but he was also no longer a newbie. I had every faith he would continue to strive for honor roll-level grades, as he had the year before. 

Things started off fine. He didn't want me to buy him a planner, so I conceded and let him organize his work on his own terms. When his grades started to slip in the second marking period, I questioned him, offered to help him study, emailed with his teachers and pushed him to work harder. I also gave him a pocket-sized notepad to keep track of homework. But by December break, I could see it wasn't working well. There were no dates in it, and he often neglected to write things down. 

By the time the third marking period arrived, I told The Spare I was buying him a planner and I expected him to use it. When shopping for one, I took his preferences into consideration. He wanted something small he could carry in his pocket, but it needed to have enough room for all his classes' assignments. I searched around until I found one that seemed perfect. But then, before buying it, I paused. 

The Spare is a bit scattered, both in his thoughts and his actions. This was my attempt to help him get organized, and I was looking at a planner that I would choose for myself for that purpose. But when I considered his scattered nature, and the very real possibility that he could end up losing anything pocket-sized, I selected a similar but inexpensive pocket calendar instead. 

I had high hopes that, as a sophomore, he'd be mature enough (and understanding of my concern and expectations) to carry, use and make the most of this new tool.  For a couple of weeks, he seemed to be. But then, as I'd feared, he lost it. 

Part of me was disappointed. Why did I even buy the thing? Another part of me shook my head. I knew this was going to happen. At least I had only spent $2.99 and not $11. I had made that choice unwillingly when buying the planner, but knowing it might be necessary. I was bummed to have been right.

Here's the thing. We want our kids to succeed, to do their best, build their confidence and make their way in the world. That is the understanding all parents have--that one day, our kids will move out and no longer need us. So whenever I try to help move my kids toward that goal and they don't seem to be progressing, I feel frustrated. Disappointed. And yes, sometimes angry. Why isn't he trying harder? Why doesn't he take the help I'm offering? Why isn't he meeting my expectations?

That's the phrase that made me step back: my expectations. Why do I have these expectations in the first place? Who am I to say he's not fulfilling his potential? He is not The Heir. He is who he is. How am I so sure he even has the emotional or physiological ability to do these things yet? 

The fact is, I can't be sure. So I need to do something that, a decade ago, I'd have scoffed at: I'm lowering the bar. Because no kid, on seeing a look of disappointment on his mom's face or hearing the dejection in her voice, is going to be inspired to try harder. He's not going to feel good about himself. And the more it happens, the more convinced he'll be that he is nothing more than a disappointment to her. And that's not what I want my kid to think. 

There's a popular saying that floats around the internet: 

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” 

The point is, as parents we need to put aside expectations we have of our kids and just keep loving and cheering them on. Eventually, each of our little fishes will find the ocean that suits him best, and swim off into his own life. Better to make the short time we have with them uplifting and positive, even if it means sometimes lowering the bar.