Baby Driver

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9181272874_b1b53bb1f8_bMy youngest child got her drivers license the other day.  After a lot of angst and more than 50 hours of practice driving (Be still, my heart!), we made our way to the DMV for the dreaded road test. My husband, who is generally calmer in the car than I, was supposed to take my daughter, but he chickened bailed out at the last minute. Yet as I sat on the hard plastic chair in the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, it felt fitting to be there waiting for my fourth and last child to go through this particular rite of passage.

I’ve always gotten excited about firsts in my children’s lives: first word, first tooth, first day of kindergarten etc. But I don’t really have a corresponding nostalgia for “lasts” in the way some parents do: last first day of school, last school dance, and now last child to get a new drivers license. Sure, I shed some tears dropping each of my three older children off at college, and I do miss seeing them on a day to day basis. But I’m too happy about all the new and exciting possibilities in their lives to dwell too long on the losses.

After what seemed an interminable wait, my daughter walked in alongside the road test evaluator. I couldn’t read her expression. The evaluator handed her a piece of paper as I walked towards her with a half smile and a tentative thumbs up. She nodded and grinned. “SUCCESS!!!” I texted my husband. My daughter regaled me with the finer points of the road test while we waited for her to have her picture taken and get her temporary license. Then she drove home, not as a practice driver, but as a newly licensed one.

There will be many more rites of passage for my youngest child to go through: ACTs, college applications, prom, graduation. And I will be there right alongside her, savoring each “last” in my life while welcoming all the new things awaiting her in the great big world of adulthood.

 

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Be the Bad Guy

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A recent report from our local high school indicates that 60 to 75 lunches are dropped off per day by parents whose kids either forgot them or wanted a hot lunch from a takeout place. The report was the school’s way of explaining why they have instituted new policies surrounding the epidemic of parental coddling.

I must admit that I have dropped off lunches, fees, homework, and any number of items to my kids at school over the years, resenting their irresponsibility as well as my own inability to say no. When I read the story about new lunch drop-off policies, I thought to myself, I wish the school would just stop allowing parents to drop off anything to their children during the school day. It would be so much easier to let the high school be the bad guy.

There’s the rub. It is not much fun to have to be the bad guy in our day to day parenting. It’s much easier and more pleasant to be the wise and understanding mentor and quasi-friend to our kids. I imagine myself as a sort of Lorelei Gilmore from The Gilmore Girls, joking around, sharing musical tastes and clothes with my teenage daughter, much too young and cool to do anything as unpleasant as instilling discipline.

The reality is that I have to rain on her parade numerous times a day. Nagging her to get off her smartphone and get to her homework, insisting that she go to bed at a decent hour, making her wear her retainer: it’s all in a day’s work for a parent. And in more important matters, it’s even more essential to be the bad guy. Our kids have always given us a lot of flak for checking with their friends’ parents to make sure there will be adult supervision when they go to their homes. And grounding them for staying out past curfew or doing something dangerous or illegal doesn’t win us any popularity contests either. But as Glenn Close’s character in The Big Chill tells her daughter, “I’m your mom. When you’re a mother, you get to be mean.”

Although it’s difficult, I keep reminding myself that kids need and actually want limits, and my husband and I are their number one gatekeepers. I also remember that in Gilmore Girls, Lorelei is blessed with a near-perfect daughter who at times is more mature than her mom. And sometimes even my kids appreciate our roles as heavies. I’ve always told them that if they are in an uncomfortable situation or don’t want to do something their peers are pressuring them to do, they can make us the bad guys.

As for being my teenage daughter’s  “gofer,” I guess it’s up to me to be the bad guy and let her be hungry next time she forgets her lunch.

Creature Feature

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meadow-micePeople who say they’d never hurt a fly are lying. When I see one of the six-legged disease carriers salivating on my kitchen counter or, worse, my food, I have no compunction about hauling out the swatter and ending that creature’s already short life. The same goes for other bugs who have the nerve to invade my house. Sure, I’ve been known to trap the odd spider in a cup and usher it back into the great outdoors. But for the most part when it comes to vermin in the house, my policy is “No mercy.”

There are, however, many distasteful critters that are protected wildlife and not so easy to rid oneself of. For instance, a hapless vole (a tiny version of a mole) made its way into our basement. I’m sure we completely freaked it out with our screams of terror. When I summoned the exterminator, he informed me that he could not kill said vole. Rats and mice were in his purview but not, apparently, voles. So my husband gamely caught it in a shoebox and took it to the woods where I hope it lived a long and happy life.

Recently I noticed that the exterior of my house looked as if I had started to decorate for Halloween. There were huge spider webs in every nook and cranny, in the corners of the windows, and dangling from the light fixtures. So I got out my broomstick (I’m a good witch) and started knocking down the diabolical insect traps wherever I found them, sending giant, monstrous arachnids scurrying into dark corners.

At the corner of my porch, I noticed that something had been digging a hole underneath the steps and immediately suspected the mother raccoon and her babies I had spied one morning moseying around in our backyard. I found a company called Critter Detectives, which came out and set a humane trap at the mouth of the hole. Sure enough, a couple of days later, I found a huge raccoon lounging in the trap. My critter detective came out, removed the trap, and set a new one. A few days later, Rocky’s friend also succumbed to the bait that looked like marshmallows, and it too was caught in the trap.

This seemed to solve my raccoon problem, as subsequent traps yielded no prisoners. But in our backyard we had an old wooden shed I had long suspected of harboring unwanted wildlife. So I called a landscaper and asked him to have his workers come out and dismantle both the shed and the 23-year-old wooden swing set that has been a lawsuit waiting to happen.

No sooner had the crew opened the doors of the shed but a huge and very pregnant skunk came waddling out. I have to give the workers credit for their bravery, as they gave the critter a wide berth but continued to dismantle the wooden structures. Mama skunk wandered away but kept returning to figure out what had happened to her cozy nest. I must confess that I felt a little guilty evicting her in her delicate state.

I recognize that we share our world with many types of creatures and need to respect their roles in the circle of life (even the flies). And while I’d never be named PETA’s Woman of the Year, I would also never needlessly cause an animal pain. I’ve learned that even exterminators have soft spots. Years ago when I found that a mouse had been making a nest in our outdoor gas grill, I called one of the big pest control concerns. The man they sent out opened the grill cover and saw that the mother mouse had given birth and that there were now about a dozen baby mice nesting there. His reaction was to leave them alone rather than obliterate them. “After all,” he reasoned, “they’ll be on their way as soon as they are big enough to travel.”

While my husband teased the “big, bad exterminator,” we acquiesced and allowed those critters to hide out in the grill for as long as they wanted. (Needless to say, we didn’t have any barbecues for a while.) I just hope those mice didn’t become someone else’s critter problem later on.

 

Less Is More

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I talk too much. Whether it’s nervous chatter in an uncomfortable social situation or getting carried away by my own story-telling, I sometimes say too much. I’ll find myself oversharing personal information or saying silly things while trying to be clever, and I’ll end up feeling embarrassed or dissatisfied with the interaction. Or I’ll monopolize a conversation and then wonder if my friend thinks I’m too self-involved.

Nowhere is my tendency to say too much more apparent and ineffectual, though, than in my interactions with my children. From the time they were little, I got into the habit of giving them lengthy explanations for everything from how Santa gets around the world in one night to why they need to brush their teeth/go to bed/not hit their brother or sister.

Over the years, my kids’ reaction to all this talking (more like haranguing sometimes) has fallen into one of two camps: either escalating the battle of wills and shouting back or completely tuning me out, like the kids in the Charlie Brown cartoons who only hear “Wah wah wah” when their teacher speaks.

When it comes to speaking and writing, often less is more. One of our most revered American literary icons, for instance, was the terse Ernest Hemingway, whose prose could be likened to a spartan cell in an ancient monastery: no frills. And who among us has not sometimes wished our pastor would share some short kernel of spiritual wisdom instead of droning on and on and repeating himself?

For my part, I am practicing the art of saying less but communicating more.

Enough said.

What Makes a Family? Love

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(photo courtesy of Gift of Adoption Fund)

The gift-wrapped package looked like it contained a pair of shoes. Teenaged Lauren watched while a special man in her life, Joe, opened her gift. Joe is not her biological father but has cared for her like one since she was a tiny girl. Inside the box were adoption papers. In a twist on the marriage proposal, Lauren was asking Joe, “Will you be my adopted father?” Of course, Joe and Lauren collapsed in tears and hugs. They recognized a simple fact. Being a family is not about blood ties.

Fourteen years ago on a hot July day in Hefei, China, my husband and I adopted our beloved fourth child, a daughter. We brought her home to her sister and two brothers on the other side of the world. The first weeks were rocky. She had her days and nights mixed up and would regularly awaken my daughter, with whom she was sharing a room. Invariably in the morning,  I would find my oldest child in a sleeping bag on the living room floor where she had decamped to escape the crying. Our new baby was also afraid of our boys and, to a lesser extent, her new dad. We reasoned that this was because in the orphanage where she had spent the first 11 months of her life, there were no males.

Before long, though, she was understanding us, laughing, playing, and walking. Her sister doted on her, and her brothers could make her laugh like no one else. Each afternoon after I had dropped my son off at preschool, I would take her to Panera Bread, where we would share a bowl of soup. Occasionally, we would have to suffer an ignorant or obnoxious question about her being adopted and whether she was really ours. Mostly, though, she just fit into the life of our family and became one of us. When I now look at my 15-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine ever having lived without her.

The adoption journey is not without its struggles. Sometimes unknown physical or emotional issues come to light. Some adoptees have identity crises or feelings of abandonment. The adoption process is anything but simple itself. Between the home studies and paperwork and waiting, it took us two full years to adopt our daughter. And the cost of adoption can be prohibitive.

Here in my hometown of Chicago, an adoptive couple in the north suburbs started a nonprofit to help families defray the many costs of adoption, particularly overseas adoptions, which require all kinds of fees as well as travel expenses. Gift of Adoption Fund has helped countless families grow through financial assistance that prioritizes families adopting children in the most urgent cases, such as those in foster care or with special needs. (Gift of Adoption Fund is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.)

Families come to be in so many different ways. Just as Lauren learned over the years that Joe was in every meaningful sense her true father, we have learned that what makes a family is the love and commitment to care for each other and to be there no matter what.

Planting Things

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IMG_1146I spent a recent afternoon strolling with some of my sisters through the University of Minnesota’s arboretum. It was a mild summer day: slightly overcast and on the cool side for the end of June in this northern Midwest locale. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been home for two of my sisters for many years, and a third recently moved to the area. That makes a visit to the Twin Cities even more of a draw for another Chicago-based sis and me. (I have eight sisters. Cue the oohs and ahs.)

Along with the majestic trees from which the arboretum derives its name, the park is home to numerous gardens growing everything from succulents to kitchen herbs to seemingly as many types of roses and lilies as you can name. As we wandered through the meticulously maintained grounds, stopping to admire fountains and sculptures and to take photos, I marveled at the time and care it takes to grow and maintain all these plants. I pictured gardeners lovingly tilling the soil, placing tender seedlings in it, watering and weeding.

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I myself am not much of a gardener, but when I was a child, I loved to spend time with my dad in his garden. If I helped weed, I would be allowed to place the tiny seeds for annuals gently in the soil and then water the plants as they miraculously went from seed to sprout to full grown flower. During our walk through the arboretum, my sisters and I reminisced about our father and his love for trees and flowers. We laughed and acted silly and forced passersby to take group photos of us in front of ponds or waterfalls.

Relationships are like plants. They must be lovingly tended. It takes time and attention to grow a close bond, time spent laughing, sharing confidences, building each other up and helping each other through difficult times. The inevitable weeds of conflict must be uprooted sometimes so that the lovely fruits of friendship and sisterhood can ripen.

Time spent in nature with my sisters was a beautiful gift this week. It reminds me that the roots developed in our families form the basis for who we will become. It encourages me to tend to those roots with my own children so that they too will carry on a meaningful and loving sibling relationship throughout their lives.

Long after the sun sets on the garden and the day lilies close their petals for the night, God’s gifts of nature abide in quiet magnificence until the dawning of the new day. May our lives mirror the beauty, tenacity, and strength of trees and flowers, granting joy and peace to those we encounter each and every day.

It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.