The Invisible Mom

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In the 1980s television series thirtysomething, the character Elliot Weston complains to his best friend and business partner Michael Steadman that they have become “invisible to teenage girls.” That remark really resonated with me as a new mother whose body was now a soft and nurturing landing place for my infant daughter instead of a curvy and sexy one men might find attractive.

That feeling of invisibility has changed over the years as my children have grown and I have experienced a different way of being invisible to teenagers. As a mom, I’m sort of like Mt. Everest – never-changing, solid, and just there. Immersed in their world of Snap Chat and Instagram, my kids seldom really notice me, except when they’re hungry or need money.

I’ve felt that same sense of invisibility in the hallways of the local high school. On the few occasions when I have been there during the school day, I will be walking down the hall and hear all kinds of profanity being shouted between teens who are blissfully unaware of the middle-aged woman in knee-length skirt and sensible shoes. It’s a bit jarring to hear, as is the sight of boys and girls canoodling in corners. This is their world, and I am just a vapor floating through it.

Still, there are some benefits to being invisible to teens. As frequent chauffeur for my kids and their friends, I have the ability to be a fly on the wall, listening to their teasing, gossip, and teenage patois, all while being perfectly unseen. The only way to break that spell of invisibility in the car is to interject my own comments, so I have learned to be the silent specter getting a glimpse into the teenage world.

On my recent visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, puppeteers did a skit depicting the story of a man gifted with a cloak of invisibility. Thus clad, the man was able to escape Death, who roamed the Earth ceaselessly in search of souls. Harry Potter himself uses the cloak to defeat the powers of evil represented by Lord Voldemort.

Invisibility can be both blessing and curse. It can hurt to be ignored by others because everyone wants to feel important, to feel recognized. I sometimes get annoyed or hurt by my kids’ seeming indifference. But invisibility can also be a gift, wherein one can be a spectator in life, observing, noticing, and learning.

I’m keeping my invisibility cloak handy for that next chance to gain insight into the world of my teens and their friends. Who knows what fascinations I may find?

The Spectacular Now

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Chicago’s Art Institute recently announced that it will soon be displaying the world-famous painting known as Whistler’s Mother. The portrait, known as the “Victorian Mona Lisa,” features the simple composition of an older woman sitting in profile and looking ahead. While most portraits depict an individual head on, Whistler’s painting almost looks as if he were catching a glimpse of his mother in repose.

What strikes me when I gaze at Whistler’s Mother is her absolute stillness. While most mothers are busy doing, this portrait seems to capture a woman simply being.

In our modern age, it is a radical move to practice simply being. While life can only be lived in the present, human beings persist in either dwelling on the past or looking to the future. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal puts it,

The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

Pascal’s statement reminds me of playing pretend with my siblings when I was young. One of our favorite games was called “Journey,” in which we pretended to be pioneers getting ready for a journey out West. But our play consisted entirely of preparation: collecting our stores, readying the wagon etc. We seldom, if ever, got started on our journey.

I am particularly prone to this future-leaning tendency. My mind is always scanning the horizon for what comes next. I need to plan. What items does my daughter need for school? What holiday do I need to prepare for? What am I serving for dinner? I make notes and lists for myself. Obviously, some planning is necessary. We can’t simply hurtle from one moment to the next without being aware of our schedules. But we tend to be so fixated on the destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.

My family drives through Michigan on a regular basis to visit relatives in Detroit. Our goal is always to get there as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have often fantasized about getting in the car with my children and starting the drive, but instead of high-tailing it to the Motor City, we would stop whenever and wherever we wanted to. A detour to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan or a winery or the now-closed Kellogg’s Company attraction, Cereal City: we would take our time and just enjoy being together.

What is more likely to happen nowadays on a trip with my children is that they will be submerged in their music and their smart phones, barely glancing up to notice natural scenery or the skyline of a new city. Last fall we brought my youngest with us to visit her brother in college out in California. We tried interesting her in the look and feel of the campus, but she was 2,000 miles away, communing with her friends back home.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have diversions, especially for young children on a long car trip. But I feel we have lost something in the process: an appreciation of the here and now. For my part, I would like to practice the stillness and “being-ness” of Whistler’s Mother. Perhaps her age-old wisdom would help me dwell in the spectacular now.

Material Girl

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My youngest child is a great kid. She works hard in school, plays multiple sports, and is a good friend to many. But she has one trait that drives me a little batty. She is constantly wanting “stuff.” Whether surfing the web on her phone or comparing herself to her friends, she is continually finding items to add to her ever-expanding wish list. When we go shopping, she finds something in every store that she absolutely must have. I could take her to a hardware store or a place selling home health aids, and she would find some doo-dad that she wanted.

This quest for possessions reaches its zenith during the Christmas season. Her Christmas list is almost comically long, and her three older siblings just shake their heads at her rampant materialism. Mind you, all of them have had their share of “wants” over the years as well. But their desires have always been tempered by a measure of good sense and an acknowledgment that their parents are not going to indulge their every whim. But for my baby, hope springs eternal.

Along with wanting lots of stuff, my daughter has a passion for brand names. I’ve noticed that middle school kids have an almost pathological need to get the right brand of jeans, shoes, jackets, and electronic equipment. But that brand fanaticism seems to fall off in high school. Not so with my youngest. She is an advertiser’s dream. Just slap the word “Patagonia” on something, and she will want it.

I have sometimes wondered whether my daughter’s outsized need for things stems from deprivation early in life. For her first 11 months of life, she had to share the limited resources of goods and attention with dozens of other babies in a Chinese orphanage. And even though we showered her with love and attention (and toys!) when we brought her home with us, she may have a nagging sense of wanting that is hard to fill.

Each year, I have had my kids help me shop for and wrap presents for a needy family for Christmas. Last year, this became my youngest daughter’s Confirmation service project, and she indeed threw herself into every aspect of it. It was humbling for both of us to realize that the wish lists for another family consisted of such prosaic items as socks, work boots, and jeans. My husband and I have strived to teach our children that we are incredibly fortunate, that others are not so lucky, and finally, that material things do not bring happiness.

I hope that over the years, through her knowledge that we love her abundantly and will never leave her lacking for attention, my daughter will come to value relationships over material goods. I hope maturity helps her realize that it is how she moves through the world that makes her special, not the label on her jacket. Meanwhile, I will try to handle my “material girl” with humor and compassion.

 

Lone Star State

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This weekend I’m “gone to Texas.” My trip to the U.S. state that defines the notion of “big”is due to my son’s impending graduation from the University of Texas in Austin. After four plus years of wearing cowboy boots and drawling, “y’all,” my boy is entering the great big world of adulthood.

My second born has been my high-maintenance child. From an early age, he developed life-threatening food allergies and asthma. Temperamental from birth, he took a lot out of me physically and emotionally. As he grew up, we had frequent skirmishes over behavior and school achievement. My husband has always said that of my four children, he is the most like me in personality, which is why we have so regularly butted heads.

At the same time, my son has always been highly intelligent, creative, and sensitive. At school, he always took up for the child who was being teased or bullied. At home, he could be found deep into a marathon Lego-building activity or creating a tableau out of action figures. Using our 8 mm video camera, he made silly movies with his friends. No doubt he has had his share of shenanigans in college too. It’s difficult to imagine him in the adult world.

Yet Saturday he will don his cap and gown and, in the words of St. Paul, “put childish things behind” him. He will step out into the adult world of work, taxes, and independence. We have come a long way from the days when I had to pack him peanut-free snacks for school or sleep away camp. A long way from sleepless nights cuddled under a blanket to let the cold night air soothe his terrible cough. With God’s grace, he has grown up to be fine young man, one of whom I am very proud.

So here’s to my lone star in that vast world of Texas. May his boots be shiny, his barbecue tender, and his Longhorns winners. Hook ’em!

 

Harlan Coben a Cure for the Reluctant Reader

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Myron Bolitar has returned! In his latest novel Home,  Harlan Coben resumes his popular mystery series about the intrepid basketball star turned sports agent turned detective and the cast of colorful characters that peopled Coben’s 10 previous Bolitar novels.

I first became addicted to Coben’s twisting, heart-pounding thrillers with his novel Hold Tight, a story about every modern parent’s nightmare, their children’s online world. The novel asked the question: How far would you go in invading your child’s privacy in order to protect him?

Like one of Coben’s troubled junkies, I was hopelessly hooked on his blend of humor, character development, and endless plot twists. For Christmas that year, my husband gave me a box filled with most of Coben’s early novels, and I immersed myself in the world of Myron Bolitar.

In between his prolific publication of adult thrillers, Harlan Coben managed to dash off a trilogy of novels for teens starring none other than Myron Bolitar’s nephew, Mickey Bolitar. Although I had been aware of their existence and had even given the first novel, Shelter, to my son, I had never thought to read them myself – until Home was published recently.

I realized that the Mickey Bolitar series, which does feature Myron, might be a continuation of  his story and decided I needed to catch up by reading the trilogy. Like his adult books, Coben’s Mickey Bolitar series were instantly riveting, and I devoured them like candy corn.  The character of Mickey is similar to his uncle Myron in that he has a sarcastic sense of humor, a great sense of integrity, and a need to save people that propels him on adventures and puts him in danger.

Parents of teenagers, especially boys, who find their kids loath to pick up a book would do well to check out this teen series by one of the masters of modern crime novels. It is no accident that Harlan Coben has won every major mystery writing award.

Now that I have caught up on the life of one of my favorite fiction characters, Myron Bolitar, I have started to delve into his latest adventure in Coben’s novel Home. I encourage reluctant readers of any age to start on the Harlan Coben oeuvre. I guarantee you won’t be able to put them down.

Judge Not

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The other day my husband said something very judgmental about the decision of a parent we know. I was a bit taken aback but realized I myself am often judging the actions and decisions of others in my daily life.

It’s easy to be insecure when you’re a parent. There are so many daily opportunities to mess up. Our children are not sculptor’s clay to be molded into the exact image we want but rather moving targets we hope to keep up with and keep safe. Some of the questions my husband and I have had to consider over the years are: How late should our child stay up/out? When are they old enough to go to the mall with friends or take the train downtown? Should we allow our teenager to sleep over at a friend’s? How much allowance should we give? Should our kids do more around the house? The list goes on.

I have found that it is very difficult not to look at other parents’ answers to these questions for their own children and judge them. Often I have thought, why can’t all the parents in my community have the same rules for our kids? It would make life so much easier!

It’s not that I am a moral relativist. I do believe in right and wrong. To paraphrase my mother from days of old, if my friends all jumped off a cliff, I would not join them. But there are so many gray areas, and it’s not up to me to be the parenting correctness police. As an example, a friend and I were talking about movies, and he related a funny story about his own permissiveness when it comes to which movies he will let his kids see. I shared the fact that I am ultra-strict when it comes to the age at which I would allow my children to watch certain TV shows or types of films. The point is, neither of us is necessarily right or wrong. We have simply done what is comfortable for us and what reflects our own values.

It takes humility to be tolerant of other people’s behavior and choices that don’t conform with our own judgments. I certainly don’t want to be judged on the fact that my kids are not required to do any chores, for instance. And it takes strength to insist upon the rules and values we hold to be important in our own lives and with our own families. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said to my children, “I don’t care what other kids are allowed to do. This is the rule in our family.”

As the Bible says, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) Wise words indeed.

 

Me First

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I like eating the end pieces of a loaf of bread – the heel, as we always called it in my family. And that is a lucky thing. Most people dislike and discard the heel of bread as the least desirable part, but mothers are often willing to settle for it, or the toughest piece of meat, or even the leftovers on their child’s plate.

When I became a mother, my baby became the center of my life. I spent every waking hour tending to her needs or fretting over her discontents. Things I had really cared about before – my appearance, my clothes, my exercise regimen – all went by the wayside once my daughter came into my life. The only self-care I paid attention to was the nutrition I needed to be able to nurse her.

Over time, I learned to let go a little. I managed to part with her for brief periods of time, leaving her with a babysitter and myself with a lingering sense of guilt. I resumed exercising, usually with her nearby, and I even managed to put on makeup and a nice outfit for an occasional “date night” with my husband.

But mothering has almost always superseded my own needs. As a mother, I work around my children’s schedules. Before I can relax, I first make sure they have what they need, whether it be a meal, an item for school, or a personal necessity. I drop everything to take them to the doctor, help with homework, chauffeur them to activities, or listen to a tale of woe. I have no complaints. That is simply what mothers do.

But sometimes it can feel overwhelming to spend days and nights obsessing over my children’s lives. At some point, it becomes unhealthy to neglect one’s own appearance and even physical well-being for the sake of the kids. So I try, I really do. I have coffee with a friend or get my nails done or go for a walk. I make plans that don’t involve my children. Still, I have a sense of disquiet whenever this “me time” seems to conflict with what my kids want or need.

This summer at sleep away camp, my daughter learned the virtues of  “living third.” The motto at camp was,  “God first. Others second. I’m third.” It is the essence of the Christian ideal to put others before ourselves. And I’m so glad my daughter is incorporating this ideal in her life. Still, I hope she learns – and I hope I can more effectively model for her – that sometimes it’s okay to say, “Me first.”