Senior Moment

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One of the more stressful times in the parenting of a high school senior is the college application process. This year Halloween promises to be frightening, not because of ghouls and goblins, but because early applications are due Nov. 1.

Last night I had a shouting match with my daughter over homework and college application issues. It ended with me swearing that I didn’t care what she did, I’d already gone to college, and then storming upstairs to my room to enjoy a pleasant trip into dystopian America with Margaret Atwood.

While senior year is proceeding in all its mixture of hope and dread, pride and fear, I myself am old enough to enjoy the senior citizen discount at my local movie theater. Is it cliche to say I’m too old for this sh*!?

Being an older parent is not all bad. Having had a fulfilling career as a high school English teacher, I was ready to take on full-time parenting when my oldest child was born. I’d like to think I had a smidgen more patience to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of raising young children.

At my age, I don’t have a dashing social life that includes lots of late nights out or trips to the Caribbean. So I’m there for my daughter and her needs: food, clean laundry, and the definitions of difficult words in her reading material. The problem is: familiarity breeds contempt – hers, not mine. For the last three and a half years, she has been like an only child, and she feels her parents breathing down her neck like a creepy stalker. She is 18, an age at which in earlier times people were marrying, raising kids, and generally being adults. So she has the urge to be independent without the wherewithal. It’s a bad combination.

I keep repeating a mantra that has gotten me through other stressful times in my life as a parent: “This too shall pass.” Take deep breaths and repeat.

I have no doubt that my lovely, talented, and intelligent daughter will find a great college to attend next year. While it may come down to the wire with application deadlines, she will cross that finish line with or without the worry lines sprouting on my face. So I will try to rein in the exasperation, the urge to control, the fretting about what ifs. I will attempt to enjoy these “senior moments” with more grace and wisdom.

At least I’ll give it the old college try!

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Patience Please

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If other drivers knew the names I was calling them from inside the safety of my car, windows closed, they might take offense. When I am pressed for time or fighting with my child or otherwise “in a mood,” I get extremely impatient with drivers who are too slow, too hesitant to take their turn at a four-way stop, or otherwise what I deem to be clueless. I’m just lucky my kids did not start out life calling everyone else idiots.

No matter how hard I try, the virtue of patience seems to elude me. I’m fine when things are going well. When I’m happy and/or not in a hurry, I am a model of politeness and kindness. “Here. Let me take that shopping cart back in the store,” I might offer the lady in the parking lot. That jogger poised to cross my path? Sure. After you! I will brush off the cashier’s mistake, the driver who fails to use his turn signal, the store clerk taking her sweet time chatting with a customer.

But when I am under stress, watch out. I will huff, roll my eyes, mutter and otherwise look like a bull right before it’s let out into the rodeo ring. Sometimes I will let a hapless stranger really have it. Afterwards, I feel ashamed of myself for losing my cool – yet again.

At home it’s the same story. In the morning when my kids first come downstairs, I tend to be friendly and helpful, fixing them breakfast and even smiling at them. But as soon as I discover they have forgotten to do something they need for school that day or that we are running late, I will snap at them. Often, as I find myself haranguing them for their irresponsibility, I want to stop, but I just can’t seem to hold my tongue.

When my youngest child was learning to use the toilet, I started to use the encouragement, “Take your time.” Whether we were in the comfort of home or in a public restroom, no matter what the circumstance, I forced myself to repeat that phrase over and over. The last thing I wanted to do was discourage my child by trying to hustle her through the process. So saying “Take your time” became a sort of mantra I used to keep myself calm.

I guess patience is something we all lose from time to time. But maybe if I train myself to repeat that mantra in my head when I am feeling rushed and stressed, I will find the patience to be a kinder, gentler person to family, friends and strangers.

 

 

Mommy Wars: Which Stage Is Hardest?

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Whenever mothers of young children bemoan their exhaustion and lack of time, you can bet that someone will snidely remark, “Wait until they’re teenagers. If you think you can’t sleep now!” I know. I’ve made such remarks myself. If I’ve ever said that to you, I apologize.

The fact is that every stage of children’s development comes with joys and challenges.  The early years are physically draining. You have children literally taking over your body: nursing, being carried, crawling into your lap, hanging onto your legs. You can’t so much as use the toilet without making sure your child is safe.

On the other hand, little kids are so cute. I’ve always believed that’s evolution’s way of making sure moms don’t kill their young.  Even when a two year old is in full throttle tantrum mode, he is so small and vulnerable that most of us don’t have the heart to be harsh. Of course, children’s vulnerability is also scary. I remember sometimes just gazing down at my infant or sleeping toddler and being overwhelmed by her complete dependence on me.

As children get older, they become a little more self-sufficient. You can sometimes even finish that cup of coffee you started before it’s completely cold.  With said independence, however, can come more power struggles and sassy behavior. When my kids were school age, I used to joke that I never should have taught them to speak. In school, kids start to lose their innocence too, and issues with friends and bullies come into play.

Still, those milestones are so rewarding: first day of kindergarten, learning to ride a bike, even those school plays. I will never forget my kids’ third grade solar system play. One son was Neptune, and he played the role as a salty pirate. The other son was Jupiter, and he was  a he-man with a muscle costume.  My oldest child participated in the school talent show by singing “One Dark Night,” a song about the Great Chicago Fire.

I am currently deep into the teenage stage with two of my four children. With this stage come more grown-up worries about peer pressure, drinking and drugs, sexuality,  academic performance, and getting into a good college. Battles with my daughter over getting her homework done or getting enough sleep, as well as late nights waiting for my 18-year-old to get home, are not the most fun I’ve ever had.

Yet I can have meaningful conversations with my teens. I can enjoy their bigger accomplishments that go along with their bigger size and age. I can let them be not only in another room, but in another town or even state without me. I can pursue my writing, exercise, piano, and other interests that fell by the wayside when they were younger.

What stage of childhood is hardest for moms? The answer is: all of them. No matter how old they get, how independent and successful, I will always worry about them and be there for them in whatever fashion they need me.

 

 

 

 

Second Child Syndrome (and other facets of birth order)

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It’s a well known truism that first born children tend to be leaders. In large families, they were often called upon to be surrogate mothers or fathers to the large brood their parents were too busy (or too tired) to manage on their own. With baby boomer parents, the tendency is for first borns to imbibe the expectations and aspirations of their high-achieving moms and dads. Consequently, they tend to be high achievers themselves, with a sense of independence and maturity often beyond their years.

This has certainly been the case with my oldest daughter, who has managed to outshine  her parents academically, socially, and physically, and will in due time no doubt surpass us in career success as well. In the movie Cheaper By the Dozen 2, the well-meaning but competitive father calls his first born daughter “Superstar,” expecting her to attend Harvard and take over the family business. By the end of the film, of course, he learns to let go of his expectations and allow her to follow her dreams. I hope we haven’t set our eldest child up for a breakdown at age 30 when she realizes she has only been trying to please us all this time.

Enter the second child. He or she soon learns how difficult it will be to measure up to the perfection of the older sibling and thus decides to become the opposite of the first born. Many, although not all, second children become underachievers or troublemakers to distinguish themselves from their older siblings. I have seen this syndrome not only in my own family, but in the children of many friends and acquaintances. As parents, we are appalled that our high expectations and methods of discipline are ineffective on child number two. It is a humbling experience to learn to accept your child on his or her own terms and to guide them toward adulthood with some of your dreams diminished.

From my point of view, the freest children are the subsequent ones after the first and second born. While still possibly competing with the older kids for attention and affection,  younger siblings seem to have more ability to be themselves rather than measure up to parental expectations. Our third child does care what we think of him. But he makes decisions based upon what he wants and not what we think. He has also had the benefit of our experience and sheer exhaustion, having raised the first two.

The baby of the family, of course, is infantilized for the longest period of time and tends to be spoiled. While never having gotten as much undivided attention as the older children, he or she benefits from our wistful sadness at this being our last one. I know I treat my youngest daughter as much more of a baby than I ever did my oldest one. This can cause problems when our pampered princes or princesses meet the real world, however, and realize they are not the cutest, most special things ever.

Birth order generalizations are, of course, just that. For instance, when there are more than a few years between the first and second born children, the competition is less fierce, and the younger one is less likely to react in opposition to the older one.  I also know plenty of families in which the children don’t seem to feel the need to react against the image created by an older sibling. And then there are only children, whose undisputed place as first in their parents’ hearts and minds gives them a different, perhaps more entitled, mindset.

I think research on birth order should be required reading for new parents. If I had realized that my ideals and techniques would not work equally with each child, I might have been more prepared for the roller coaster ride of parenthood. Still, I am grateful for the way each of my four children has taught me humility, patience, and trust. In the words of a great Who song, “The kids are all right.”