Five years ago I wrote a blog post discussing what I call “May Madness,” which I am fairly certain most parents with school-age kids can relate to right now. Here is how I defined this “magical” month when the school year winds down and spring catapults us toward summer...
Yes, I am feeling it. The intensity of the holiday season is in the air and it is nearly impossible to escape the droplets of frenetic energy that invisibly dissolve into our pores this time of year.
For me, I notice that my thinking gets more scattered, I have a hard time writing, and a slight heaviness sets in as early darkness shortens our days, and it is so damn cold outside.
But the blessings…oh the blessings. So many of them. It is the deep gratitude I feel for these blessings that help me embrace the intense beauty and fragility of life and the increasing awareness of the passage of time. This week, I enter a new decade of life...
Truth: I feel really uncomfortable asking for your social media support because I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it myself. I go from feeling like it is the most incredible thing in the world and wonder how I ever lived without it, to being quite certain that it is the biggest, most obscene popularity contest that ever existed.
Upon my return from visiting my daughter two weeks ago, I came down with a case of “the crud,” which started with the swallowing razor blades feeling in my throat, then moved into my head with a pounding, ferocious headache, then moved into a seemingly never-ending flow of that grossness that clogged my sinuses and rattled in my chest.
Okay, I will stop there and promise you that the purpose of this post is not to complain about my nasty sinus infection. Not at all. In fact, I have absolutely nothing to complain about right now as I sit poolside looking at the Sea of Cortez with six girlfriends for a special birthday celebration. I am all good.
But in looking back on these the past two weeks, one of which my husband was working in London and India, I noticed a few revealing aspects about myself that clearly illustrate how self-care is a value that is developed early on, and the patterns of behavior that we form around these values are very tough to break.
Here's what these "old" patterns looked like for me: During the time I was battling a nasty cold and my husband I did the following: I said no to offers of help when I actually needed to say yes. I said yes to meetings and other commitments that could have waited. I did things for my children that they could have done for themselves. I stayed up late at night to work instead of going to sleep early. I told people I felt fine when I didn’t. And all these actions most likely doubled the amount of time I was sick.
Why did I do this? Why do we push through our self-care needs when we know better? Because I did not want to stop, or even slow down. I didn’t want to listen to my body’s signals that it needed a rest; that maybe the stress of Soph’s accident, and the sleepless nights I spent worrying about her, and the impromptu trip to see her had weakened my immune system.
I didn’t want to admit to anyone or myself that I couldn’t do it all; that I was "weak.". I didn’t want to let anyone down.
Except that I did. I let myself down. And spent two weeks feeling crappy, which led to this: I snapped at my kids, and my husband when he arrived back home. My mind was foggy, which caused me to move at a much slower pace. I was late to my son’s doctor’s appointment that had been scheduled for three months. I banged on the steering wheel and maybe dropped a few f-bombs after being caught in rush hour traffic for 45 minutes because I didn't leave on time and upon finally arriving at the clinic, we were told that the doctor could not see us for another hour, which was the exact time I had to pick up my daughter’s soccer carpool. I looked at the nurse flabbergasted and started to cry, my son watching me in dismay, still recovering from my meltdown in the car, as the nurse tried to apologize. What she didn’t realize is that my tears were not because I was upset with her.
I was upset with myself that my not taking care of myself was causing a negative ripple effect on those I love.
And it does. And yet, we still tell ourselves that we “don’t have time” to time to heal from or even deal with illnesses—physical or mental. We don’t have time to deal with dysfunction in our relationships our partners, our kids, our friends, or ourselves. We don't have time to exercise or to eat well, or to get enough sleep. There is too much to be done. We gotta keep plowing through. We gotta be "strong" and just keep it together.
But the real work of self-care is to challenge those thoughts, which most of us battle periodically throughout our lives. Those internal (and sometimes external) messages that pull us away from our innate need to care for ourselves are not based in kindness or love. In fact, those messages actually steals pieces of our joy, health, happiness, self-worth, and self-esteem. They need to be overpowered with the following messages:
We are born to be happy and to feel good. Everyone has a right to want that and to strive for that. When we do honor ourselves and are honest about how we really feel and what we really need, we give ourselves a fighting chance! We increase our level of happiness and the quality of our lives, our relationships, and our overall well-being and the well-being of those around us.
Which brings me to the present moment where I am incredibly grateful to be feeling good again, and for the fact that for the next three days, I get to focus on friends, fun, and decompressing. And while I am well aware that this kind of get-away does wonders for my physical and emotional well-being, we all need to be mindful of how we take care of ourselves amidst the stress and pressures of our every day lives.
So, I will make you a deal: I promise to send you some relaxing Mexican vibes this weekend if you promise that you will do something for yourself that you know you need but you just "don't have time for."
Deal? I would love to hear what you decide to do to honor yourself!
Truth: Just a few years ago, public speaking and panic attacks went hand in hand for me. And I still feel a bit of terror, which can feel like I want to throw up cry or die, or some combination of the three before every radio or TV interview, book talk, workshop, or book club that I do. But each time the fear sets in, I engage in some very serious stare-downs with my insecurities and move through it because I have to. Because I have experienced incredible changes over the course of writing and launching The Self-Care Solution, changes that need to be shared with as many mothers as I can reach. So, I will keep doing my own work so that I can share the messages of hope, healing, self-love and self-care.
The Self-Care Solution journey has been and continues to be life-changing. I have met so many incredibly bright, brave, and thoughtful people throughout this process, who inspire me every day to live my life with more kindness and passion, which goes hand and hand with showing kindness and compassion toward oneself. Through sharing my own story, I have connected with people who are more willing to share their truths. Like the woman who sat in my living room on a Sunday afternoon as she told me about how she raised two boys as a single mom, working three jobs to put them through private school. She shared her view on self-care, “Self-care doesn’t have to cost money. It doesn’t have to be about getting a massage or going to the gym. When my boys were young, my self-care was talking on the phone to my girlfriends I’ve had since high school and bitching about our kids or whatever was on our minds. That kept me sane." She also told me that leaving her husband was also an act of self-care.”
Doing this work makes me more acutely aware of myself and of those around me. It makes me feel like I want to reach out and hug every mom I see and tell her, “Do the self-care work. Really. You will surprise yourself with how strong you really are, and how strong you can become. You may need to make some changes in your life. And it won’t be easy. But you are SO worth it! And your family needs you to believe that!”
But as with most things in life, self-care is a continual work in progress, and it is rarely a smooth, straight, or easy path. As I work to better secure my own boundaries (my biggest self-care challenge), I have experienced push-back from my kids (and just a tiny bit from my beloved husband). My kids are less than amused with my new mantra, “There is a new sheriff in town.” But behind their eye rolls, I can see that they do understand the necessary shift.
They get that I expect them to step up to the plate of their lives, and that I need to step back from them a bit so I can step more solidly into my life, my work, my relationship with my husband and friends. And while they probably can’t fully comprehend the importance of this type of movement, they trust me, and they trust my love for and devotion to them. I assure them that even though this shift may feel like the harder path, we all will be happier, healthier, and more compassionate humans if we can stay the course and support one another along the way.
So, as we move through this back to school transition, and I say goodbye to my college kids (btw, if you are looking for me on Friday, I will be binge-listening to books on tape and Ted Talks during the 10-hour drive to Michigan with my daughter), I know my heart will ache and tears will flow with those excruciating last goodbye hugs.
But now more than ever I feel exceedingly grateful that my kids know how to take good care of themselves. There is nothing more rewarding and comforting for a parent than to see your child treating her/himself and those around him with love, respect, and care.
And who better to teach them how to do this than you?
And what better way to teach them than by showing them how it’s done?
Wishing you all a smooth back to school transition that is, of course, filled with lots of self-care and self-love!
March 7th, 2016, 1:23 p.m. Minnetonka, MN — I typed the following word and emailed it to my publisher:
The Self-Care Solution is now officially off to the printer for its first official print-run.
This “print run” will print the books that will travel to bookstores all over the country and hopefully to your mailbox (if you pre-ordered the book already, thank you, or plan to purchase copy online or at one of my upcoming events, thank you).
After hearing the swoosh of the sent email, which marked the release of this book out from under my careful control, I took a deep breath, and exhaled a mixture of liberation, jubilation, and something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Tears flowed freely as I emailed my mom and David, who had coached me to the finish line, “Push send, Julie. You can do this.” And I alerted my publicist and friend Wendy with the following email:
“I feel like I want to do back flips and throw up at the same time.”
Her response quickly turned my tears to laughter and relief, “Now that would be a good trick. All is good.”
As I sat at my writing desk where I had spent countless hours pounding at my keyboard, begging my brain to conjure up the necessary words to articulate my thoughts, I settled into this transitional moment. The vivid memories of what it took for me to get to this point—the insane (sometimes almost literally) amounts of intention, discipline, devotion, trust, frustration, courage, vulnerability, and dedication. And while I wanted to allow myself to feel victorious (the back flip part), I felt a nagging pull that wrestled with my feelings of joy, “don’t get yourself too excited lady, you have no idea what’s around the corner” (the throwing up part).
When I was immersed in the process of writing, re-writing, editing, and re-editing, the book was under my care and my control. No one could judge it or judge me. Like a baby, I nurtured, coddled, protected, and guarded my book. Only a trusted few read it. But like raising a child, the time had come to let it go. And over these past few weeks (during which time my son developed influenza and a stomach ulcer and spent four days in the ICU, and another week at home…he is fine, thank g-d, but it was definitely a trying time for him; for all of us) this pivotal moment came closer and closer... and March 7th was the day that I needed to release this fifth child of sorts out from under my wing.
Yes, I felt confident that the book was ready to stand on its own in the world without me hovering over it; not unlike the time when I knew my two older kids were ready to head off to college on their own. In releasing my college-bound kids, I knew there would be bumps and bruises along the way (for them and for me). And in releasing this book, I also knew that there would be highs and lows; good reviews and not so good ones (of my book and of me).
But even with this confidence and awareness, it took only a quick glance over my shoulder to find my trusted frienemy named “fear” hanging out, eager to have a conversation with me. “Really?? Are you sure you are ready? Because, guess what? It's rough out there and you might not be as ready as you think you are!” (Read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic for more on the role of fear in the creative process.)
“Well,” I told my frienemy,“ready or not, the cord has been cut and this book is making its way out into the world! So please step aside for now.”
And yes, I hit send. And yes, I am hard at work scheduling book publicity, launch events, readings, conferences, and self-care workshops. But my frienemy is still hanging out nearby, willing and able to cozy up to me whenever I give it a chance. I can completely relate to Louisa Treger, author of The Lodger, as she explains the difficulties she encountered when her book was released:
“I felt incredibly exposed, as though I’d taken my clothes off in front of the world. It is perhaps the central paradox of being an author that you must have a thin skin in order to write well, yet the hide of a rhinoceros to put yourself out there. I am still working on the rhinoceros part!”
So, my dear friends and readers, please know that this thin-skinned author is continually working to strengthen her hide… especially between now and the May 3rd release! And quite frankly, I would love your support! You can like my new Facebook author page, subscribe to my blog (click link below), or connect with me on Twitter. You can recommend my book to your friends and relatives. And my Minnesota peeps, I would be thrilled to see you at any of my book events, which will be listed on this site soon (and most of them will include wine!).
And if and when you do decide to take in this beloved fifth child of mine, I truly hope you will make room for its messages in your life. I hope that by practicing your self-care, you will infuse your life with more happiness, health, and meaning so that you can share this energy with those you love!
“The only way that a mother can truly be present, engaged, connected, and nurturing with her child is if she is present, engaged, connected, and nurturing with herself. And the only way she can be connected with herself is if she does what she needs to do to care for herself in an honest and meaningful manner. This is the true essence of self-care for mothers.” --The Self-Care Solution
Thank you all for your support and encouragement along the way! You have helped bring The Self-Care Solution to life! G-d speed!
Is it normalthat when I say goodbye, a huge chunk of myself leaves with you?
Is it normal that I'm happy, thrilled, relieved, excited, depressed, sad, confused, conflicted, all at the same time?
Is it normal to both overidentify and actively, consciously, choose to separate my emotions from yours so that I can get through my day? ….
Is it normal to feel that our house is so quiet despite having multiple kids still living at home?”
-Excerpt from Ruchi Koval’s “To My Grown-up Kids”
As the leaves begin to change and the cooler air sets in, I become keenly aware of the many transitions in my own life. I am still working to find my new normal. Adjusting to the very different vibe that exists in our house since sending off our college freshman and college junior to their respective colleges in late August. Quite frankly, the vibe is a bit calmer, less intense, and less chaotic. My husband and I are embracing this time to focus more energy and attention on our two younger children, on each other, and on ourselves when we can.
As wonderful as many aspects of this transition have been, there are some days when the energy shift in my house feels completely counterintuitive and deeply painful.
I find myself staring at the black car parked in our driveway. I can still hear the inappropriate music that blasted from within as my older kids zipped in and out at every hour of the day and night. I can see my younger kids hopping in the back seat, their heavy backpacks in tow, thrilled to be riding to school with their big brother or sister.
Now I drive my younger kids to school in my car, and play appropriate music at an acceptable volume (to me). The black car remains empty, stagnant in its spot in the driveway. It has done its job, served its purpose. It’s no longer an essential, integral part of my older kids’ daily lives. It is needed less and less frequently.
I feel a kinship with the black car.
Even though the black car (and I) are are less of a focal point for my older kids, this is what I truly hoped for them—to be in the driver's seat of their own lives (and eventually of their own car that they buy with their own money). However, for now I know that my older kids are grateful that their trusted, loyal black car (and me) are there for them when they need it, and that they will be thrilled to see it (and me) when they get home.
I feel the chilliness of this transition when I enter either of the two unoccupied bedrooms in our house. Scanning my older kids’ rooms, I take in the remnants of their lives that they left behind, and I am overcome with a sense of happiness, gratitude, longing, and loss. Happiness and gratitude for the wonderful memories I have of mothering them in my home; the longing to resurrect some of those memories and to linger more in the time spent with them; and the loss of being physically connected to the daily rhythm of their lives.
Coming to terms with the inevitable physical and emotional separation that occurs when kids leave home has been an uncomfortable and challenging process for me, as it is for almost every mom who I have talked to who has sent kids off to college. Typically, the college kids propel us through this process whether we are ready or not because during the limited number of phone minutes college kids allow for, they will only answer a few of our questions before they ever-so-politely interrupt with, “Gotta go, mom! Off to dinner with friends!”
And they’re gone. And we are left with seven other questions that we really wanted to ask, in addition to a few follow-up questions on the questions they did answer. Most often we are left to try to piece together a picture of their life away from home, and pray that the full picture, which we are no longer have a full grasp of, is happy, productive, and fulfilling for them.
Learning how to accept the unknowns and the ambiguity that comes with with parenting adult children from afar, coupled with the uncertainty of how we fit into their present and future lives is an ongoing process that requires patience and trial and error. But for me, probably the most important and challenging aspect of this transition is trusting that the unfaltering, unconditional love I feel for my older children will stay with them always, helping them to feel secure and grounded, and that our connection, no matter how many miles between us or how many of my questions go unanswered, will remain solid and strong.
Trusting this bond is essential, as it allows me the freedom to let go a little more, exhale more fully, and open up more space in my heart and mind to embrace the present moment, my two younger children, my husband, and the beautiful life that is right in front of me.
This is my new normal. And it feels okay.
I knew that it was time to do the web search but I wasn’t quite ready. As I forced myself to type in the name of my chosen airline and begin the flight search, it hit me that I would not be able to book our two tickets together. My ticket would be for a quick turn-around, and my daughter's would be for a much more extended stay. I would take her back. Back to college, her home away from home, where she taught me how to say goodbye and where she plans to reside for the next three years, at least. This August, I will fly there with her and once again, help her move into her room, squeeze her with everything I am, say a prayer, and return to live my life at home, a little emptier and yet a little fuller, while she renters her college life.
But we are not there yet. I am with her now. Soph blew in (my daughter doesn’t just arrive, the wind actually picks up when she enters a room due to her passion-filled, larger than life energy) at the end of April before most of her friends were home. I had her almost to myself. While the rest of my kids were finishing their school year, we had the chance to reconnect. She decompressed. She slept. We ate her favorite foods. We talked. I learned about the small details of her life at school that she couldn’t share via text or phone calls. I cherished the opportunities to read her facial expressions and body language as she revealed snippets of new, exciting experiences she had, mistakes she made and questions she was pondering.
And I listened. And I withheld judgment and advice…until I couldn’t. And the MOTHER brain took over and I found myself advising, “teaching,” probably with a tinge of judgment. And then she would pull back. Retreat. Protect her secrets that one does not share with her MOTHER. And I gave her space. Stopped looking for every “teachable moment,” and let her be.
And then she would come back around. Slowly allowing me to see her again—in her full, teen/adult light—to know her thoughts, her insights, her feelings, her vulnerabilities and her fears. And I would listen. And bite the hell out of my lip.
And this is the new language we speak. A mother who craves closeness to a young woman who needs her mom close and yet needs her space all in the same breath; a daughter who is on a bumper car ride toward adulthood, on which there is occasionally room for her mother to sit next to her, and yet, more frequently, needing and wanting to occupy the front seat all by herself. And I am off to the side (most likely biting my lip again), trusting that she's got what it takes to navigate her car without me, and yet always prepared to jump in if the bumps get too intense.
Push me away—pull me close. Hold her tight—let her go. But never completely.
I book two tickets—our outbounds the same, but my return for two days after our arrival and her return for two months later, when my youngest son will celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.
More growing up. More letting go. I am finally starting to fully grasp the true beauty of this cycle, and am trying to enjoy the ride. Bumps and all.
I wrote a "slice of life" piece about my son's baseball game last week but felt that it was important to include some personal background to give you some context for the story: Growing up, I was a competitive gymnast, tennis player and golfer. I had a driving force that would send me to the gym, tennis court and driving range for hours on end (Too many injuries pulled me out of gymnastics and I fizzled out of tennis because I simply wasn’t good enough). Over time, when I hit a rough spot during my teenage years, my internal drive was still strong but it had shifted. I was motivated more by negative forces than positive ones, and my self talk often sounded like this, “If you don’t win, you are worthless, a nothing. Work harder and whatever you do, DON'T FAIL.”
Surprise, surprise, those messages, which pounded in my head for years, would ultimately destroy my ability and motivation to compete. I never developed the essential coping mechanisms for dealing with failure that all successful athletes must cultivate for times when they are in a slump, they lose a game or a match, or are not performing at the level to which they are accustomed. My lack of resiliency would explain why after shooting a terrible first round in the state high school golf tournament my junior year, followed by an equally terrible second round, I refused to pick up a golf club for decades.
Which brings me to today. I have now have a son who is a competitive baseball player, and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that it is game of failure. The best of the best pro baseball players hit the ball three out of every ten times, and the scoreboard has an actual spot that highlights the number of ERRORS the players make (not fouls, like in basketball, but errors-as in how many times you totally screw up). And my son plays two of the most high-pressure positions out there: short stop and pitcher.
I love to watch my son play. But in all honesty, there are times when I think I will explode from the nervous energy that brews within me. As much as I try to push my old demons away, to try and separate my stuff from his, so that I can support him and love him no matter what successes or failures he experiences on the field, there are times when my competitiveness takes some of that joy away. Every single time I find myself feeling stressed or anxious about a game of his, I have to talk myself off the ledge and remind myself that this is my MY fear of failure and MY difficulty in dealing with competition—not his, and that it is crucial that I do not drop my old baggage on him.
I have seen him have moments when he did not deal with failure as well as he wanted to. But watching him work his way through these issues, and find coping and recovery strategies for dealing with failure has provided him with some of his most important life lessons and has been incredibly healing for me.
I needed a break. I could tell that my energy wasn’t helping him. My perfectionism, my fear of failure, my feeling that I could some how control the outcome of his baseball game by willing him and his team to succeed. It was time for me to separate myself and let him play his game. He was in a slump, had had a tough game the night before, and I felt that my presence at his game was some how hurting him.
Could that be true? What if it was?
The section tournament game—a game not to miss. The team wins, they move on; they lose, they are done. “I’m thinking of sitting this one out, hun,” I mentioned to my son the day of the big game, trying to sound casual about it. “It seems like that the games that you played when dad and I were out of town were the best three games of your season. How would you feel if I didn’t come? Do you think it’s less pressure for you if I am not there,” I asked him somewhat tentatively.
“Mom, it doesn’t matter if you are there or not. Do what you want,” he responded, like a typical 17-year-old.
Ok. Got it. But I still felt unsure. How could I really not go? Would the other parents think I am not supporting him? Am I being crazy? My husband said that it is okay either way. “He knows you love him,” David said, trying to ease my tension. And he repeated my son's message, “Do what you need to do,” but added, “It will be okay.”
My youngest daughter and I headed out to the lake and she jumped thrillingly into the hot tub while I sipped a beer and sat on a deck chair allowing the blazing sun to warm my face and offer me some semblance of calmness. I exhaled and felt like I was a million miles away, and that a million pounds had been lifted off my chest. I knew I could support him better from where I sat; that my energy was positive and detached—not in an “I don’t care” kind of way, but in a spirit of letting go and practicing self-care kind of way. It was better for me to not be in the stands riveting with anxiety, and deep down I knew that this was most likely better for him.
But there was that all-too familiar feeling of guilt to reckon with—that frustration with myself and more questioning, ”Why can’t you just go enjoy your son’s game? What kind of mom doesn't go to his son's section baseball game?” Well, I guess this kind of mother, whose 10-year-old daughter splashed in the hot tub, thrilled that she would not be dragged to her millionth baseball game of the season. Thrilled to have time alone with me—a relaxed me (or at least trying to be).
“J just got a hit and drove in a run,” my husband’s text message popped up on my phone and pulled my eyes away from my daughter, and away from my here and now. I smiled and mindfully tried to stay focused on her, chasing the “I SHOULD be there” thoughts away. “Mom, watch me swim laps! Time me,” Jo blared toward me before submerging her entire body under water.
As I a concentrated on my stop watch on my phone, it buzzed again. “They are hitting us like it’s batting practice. We are down 6-2,” my husband revealed. O.k., another big inhale as my mind turned to the seniors who could be playing their last game, and then jumped ahead to next year when my son would be a senior (oh my!). Then my heart became even heavier as I thought of the 8th grader who made the varsity team and whose dad was rapidly losing his 3-year battle with cancer. Would his dad get to see him play another baseball game?
“Mom! How many laps did I swim?! How fast did I swim them? Mom, come on, please get off your phone!” I peeled my eyes away from my hand held device and back to the here and now. Back to my daughter’s youth and innocence—a reminder that despite the fact that life is filled with all different kinds of losses, there is also so much joy. I was reminded that it is okay to sit back sometimes and allow myself to just be, and to take care of myself, and trust that my son knows how very important he is to me, and how much I love and believe in him, no matter where I am or where he is. I hoped that all my children feel this.
"Twenty-five laps in 35 seconds! Best yet,” I shouted loud and proud, as if she had just beaten Michael Phelps’ record (there I go again!).
My phone vibrated. That magical and yet baneful piece of plastic and metal, which has the power to instantly pull me out of the present and split me in two—I’m here but I’m there—which is actually kind of nowhere. I should just turn it off. Yep, I’m turning it off. I grabbed the phone out of my pocket and positioned my finger on the power button. As I started to press down, I glanced down for a split second as the words flew off the screen and and hit me on the head.
“J hit a home run.”
My eyes filled with tears and my heart began to pound so loudly I was sure my daughter could hear it from under water.
"No way," I managed to type, half wondering if my husband was telling me the truth. My son had never hit a home run.
“Yep, first of his career,” my husband revealed (as if I didn’t know).
My daughter looked at me and asked me what was wrong. “Honey, you need to dry off, we are going for a ride,” I told her, and continued to explain to her about her brother’s milestone and that I just needed to be there when he walked off the field.
As we drove out to catch the last few innings of the game, I felt at peace. I didn’t know if he would have hit his first home run if I had been in the stands that night. But it didn’t really matter. I was truly and completely happy for him. And I was happy that I was able to let go and create some healthy space for myself and for my son.
This was a victory in and of itself.
One of my greatest parenting pleasures has been the connection I have made with my kids through the process of writing. An old college professor of mine convinced me that, “If you can think, you can write.” I have continually reminded my kids of this important message, especially when they have become frustrated with their own writing process. I have loved being able to read my kids’ writing work and to provide feedback that I think has been helpful in helping them grow as writers and thinkers, and in their ability to trust their own voice. I know how much I value my writing mentors today, and I think teenagers sometimes have a very difficult time streamlining their thoughts and understanding how best to articulate their messages in writing. I feel so incredibly grateful that my kids have let me into their writing processes, and that I have gotten the opportunity to get to know them in ways that I may not have otherwise. Read the full article about the benefits of helping teens with their writing in Your Teen Magazine.
This Is 17 It was 2 a.m. on a Tuesday evening and I tried to lay still but my mind spun and heart raced. I was replaying a conversation I had had with my 17-year-old son earlier that evening. It was one of those difficult, reality check, let-me-give-it-to-you straight types of conversations that included messages about the hard edges of life, how there really are no short cuts, that wanting something is usually not enough, that effort is almost always rewarding regardless of the outcome and how when you hit difficulties that seem insurmountable, you have a few choices: you can crumble and quit, or you can do everything in your power to try to help yourself achieve your goals.
Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play. I heard the words leaving my mouth, traveling across my office to reach him where he stood with his arms crossed at the doorway. I saw his eyes pull away from mine and the corners of his mouth turn downward. I knew these words/my words stung him.
Shoot the messenger!
I was overwrought with guilt for feeling like I needed to deliver these messages when I could see how heavily the toll of junior year was weighing on him. And these messages were not new to him. He has not only heard them from his parents but from teachers, coaches, and mentors who have cared about him enough to give him an extra push and some constructive guidance. And, most importantly, he has learned them himself—out there in the real world—succeeding, failing, picking himself up, succeeding, failing, trying again—just like the rest of us. I knew he had been listening and learning...but I told myself that I needed to make sure that he REALLY "got it." But after the words came out and I felt the regret sink in, I asked myself, "What does REALLY "getting" something mean at 17? What does it even mean at 47?"
I went into the kitchen and poured myself a bowl of cereal. Maybe the Wild Berry Clusters and Flakes would take away the pit in my stomach that accompanied the thoughts of, “You really screwed up. You didn’t need to say those things to him. You are putting even more pressure on him. He is going to crack.”
I knew that my intention was to ready him for the sometimes harsh world that periodically hurls daggers of disappointments at us, whether we are ready for them or not. And even though I had made sure to tell him that I have always and will always love and accept him exactly the way his is, I also told him that the world might not always be so kind; that colleges would only know him by his GPA, ACT score, and a 500-word essay. What I wanted to say, but chose to omit because I knew he would immediately roll his eyes and say very clearly, "STOP, MOM," was that the seemingly powerful people who will only know him by a piece of paper and will soon determine his fate (or at least where he is admitted to college) won’t know some very crucial things about him. They won't know that he bear hugs his younger brother every day and helps him with his homework without being asked; that he tells funny stories to his little sister when she has trouble falling asleep; that he drives his siblings to school every day; and that he loves and treats his friends like brothers. But I do know, and so does he.
And this is 17: Mothering him with unwavering love and support, but trying to determine when the unconditional love includes honestly and intentionally delivering messages that will help prepare him for the real world; helping him formulate his future plans while guiding him in the management of his the immensely growing number of current responsibilities and pressures; and slowly and gently turning the reigns of his life over to him as he moves toward exiting his boyhood dependence and responsibly embracing his adulthood independence.
And in the midst of it all, when I least expect it, I find myself staring at him. Wanting to slow down the clock, and maybe even rewind it to revisit a few moments of his childhood where I could hear him say, “Uppy, Mommy” one more time, or see his ear to ear grin when he impressed the whole neighborhood by riding his bike with no training wheels at 20 months, or to feel the warmth of his small, trusting hand clutching mine as I walked him into his first day of preschool. But I can’t because time is flying by at a pace unlike anything I experienced in his early years—before he drove a car, attended school dances, spent the summer in Israel, and began his college search—before he was readying himself to leave his childhood behind.
This is 17.
This Is Childhood
My eyes, damp with tears, veer away from my cereal bowl and fall upon the book that I had just received in the mail. I opened "This is Childhood,” edited by Randi Olin and Marcelle Soviero of Brain, Child Magazine, and was immediately pulled into its wonder and comfort, and into my own memories.
As I read through the 10 essays, each one representing a different age of childhood, 1 through 10, I felt an immediate connection with the writers and their stories, including local writers Nina Badzin (This is Three), Galit Breen (This is Four) and Tracy Morrison (This is Seven). Each essayist gives a unique, realistic and poignantly beautiful portrayal of what that particular age looked and felt like. Within their personal stories lie many universal themes like “three has an almost worrisome obsession with bandages that we parents accept for the speed at which they make tears go away” (Nina Badzin) that unite all mothers and make us nod our heads in unison, “Yep, mine did that too,” or “I felt the exact same way.”
I love this book and my only regret is that I didn’t have it sooner. My baby is 10 and I am already beginning to forget the “time stands still” moments that spill out onto every page of this book. And at the end of each essay, there is a prompt that encourages the reader to take a moment and reflect on what that particular age looked/looks and felt/feels like to them by zeroing in on a specific moment or angle like: “Is your little one more big or more little at age four? Capture the words and the faces, the jokes and the stories that make it so.”
My extremely inconsistent journaling and nearly empty baby books (not even positive that I have one for my 4th child) have left me with only fading memories of these years (wish I had started my blog 19 years ago!). But I think to myself that maybe I will try to resurrect some of these memories and jot them down in my newly treasured book.
But for now, it’s 3 a.m. and the few remaining flakes of my cereal rest soggily at the bottom of my bowl. My tears had dampened many pages of my new book as reading the deeply meaningful essays triggered the release of many sweet memories of my children’s early years; especially, those of my 17-year-old. I am baffled by the passage of time.
In returning to the thoughts about my earlier encounter with my son, I feel more at peace. The book reminded me that I have spent the past 17 years loving and guiding this green-eyed, loving boy who was well on his way to manhood. I knew he was going to be just fine. I knew he trusted me to tell him the truth, even if it stings a little.
But once in a while, it certainly would be nice to be able to revert to the fail-safe, take-the-pain-away-immediately band aide method. Unfortunately, however, this no longer works at 17.
Click here to order your copy of this wonderful book—Enjoy!
It’ that time…already. My daughter is coming home this weekend after finishing her freshman year at college. I am truly in awe of how quickly the year has gone and how much I have learned over this past year. I wanted to share a few insights about how this life transition has not only propelled my daughter to adapt, change and grow, but surprisingly has done the same for me.
As most of you know, saying goodbye to my daughter was extremely difficult and I felt that I had lost a part of myself when she left. But thankfully, over time (even though I still don’t like to go into her empty room), I have adjusted to our new normal and have realized that her departure served as a bit of a wake up call for me.
To sum up my mothering of Sophie, I would say that I had an extreme case of the “first-child syndrome.” I wanted to do everything right and to be an all-star, all-knowing mother. Upon her birth, I quit my job as a public relations account executive, and decided that she was my world and that everything else paled in comparison to the joy I felt in being her mother.
Three more kids and 19 years later, I realize that some of my initial new mommy thoughts were on par, but I have also discovered that throughout my motherhood journey I have struggled with defining myself as more than a mother to my children. I have, at times, found it difficult to stay true to myself while taking care of my family (which is the basis for my upcoming book!).
I have had several “hit me over the head” moments (which usually came in the form of mini-breakdowns) that served as reminders that my children could not MAKE me happy, and that my happiness and fulfillment needed to start from within. Sophie leaving for college was definitely one of those moments.
During this past year, I have regained parts of myself I didn’t even know I had abandoned. I realized how much energy, emotional and physical, that I poured into that wonderful, brown-haired, blue-eyed girl. I don’t regret any of it, as I know it was part of my journey and that I experienced a great deal of healing in mothering her the way I did. However, since her departure, I am grateful that I’ve experienced a newfound sense of peace within myself, as well as within my relationship with my daughter.
I now understood that the relationship Sophie and I built while she was living at home was only the beginning. We laid the groundwork for what would continue to be a solid and indestructible bond. Throughout this past year, Soph and I found our rhythm in how much we talked, or didn’t talk; how much she leaned on me for advice or support and how much she tried (or I urged her) to figure things out for herself. I realized that when I missed her, it was okay for me to call her, and when I missed her A LOT, I could even grab my little one and go visit her.
But equally as important, I realized that sometimes when I was lonesome for her, I needed to not call her. I needed to be present in my life and focus on what was in front of me— my husband and three other kids, my writing, yoga, faith, friends and family. Doing so provided me with an amazing sense of comfort and fulfillment and reminded me that while my kids will always be a huge part of my life, I have many other passions and interests that make me who I am and make me feel whole.
This sounds dramatic, but I found that Sophie’s departure made me look at my life in a “big picture” kind of way. It has taught me that while I initially thought of Sophie’s leaving as a “loss,” it turned out that after I shed all the necessary tears, it actually felt like a gain for both of us. The cord was cut, once again, and we both were thrown into unknown territory where the 650 miles that separated us caused us to be less dependent on one another, and provided us extra freedom and space to grow and explore our individual passions.
As I anticipate her homecoming tomorrow, I am well aware that our strengthened relationship will be tested as she is expected to live under our house rules again. This experience may add an entirely new twist to our mother/daughter “absence makes the heart grow founder” love story. More on that to come…Wish me luck…
Jamie Goodman, along a half a dozen other 17-year-olds, gathered at my house a few weeks ago to hang out with my 17-year-old son and reminisce about the eight weeks they spend in Israel last summer with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. Jamie, who lives out of town and I had never met, arrived before the others and I had a chance to chat with her a bit. As she told me about her college and summer plans (she’s a high school senior), she very casually mentioned that she is heading out on a book tour with her dad this summer. “Oh, your dad is a writer,” I asked. “Yes, and so am I. We wrote a book together,” she explained humbly. I was so taken by this adorable, kind, articulate and humble teenager who…wrote a book! I could have talked to her all night about her project but my son soon "rescued" her and whisked her out of my kitchen and off to join their other friends. Well, today is a big day for Jamie and her book, “Jamie’s Journey—Travels With My Dad,” and she is asking for some help. TODAY, April 11th, is the LAST DAY you can download her book for FREE on Amazon . She is hoping to get 3,000 people to download it so that it can become an Amazon bestseller. Even if you don't have a kindle, you can download the free kindle app onto your phone or ipad and download the book from there.
Here is a sneak peak of Jamie’s book that she co-wrote with her father. I hope you will support Jamie in reaching her goal of becoming a become an Amazon best selling author, as well as enjoy her wonderful insights that she shares in her book:
When Dr. Rick Goodman proposes to his sixteen-year-old daughter Jamie that they spend a month together bonding in Europe, she is excited yet skeptical! That’s when Dad dropped the bomb! This Journey would take place only if all of today’s modern technology and distractions were removed! Starting from St. Louis with stops in Chicago, London, Paris, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, Rome and finally Israel, the relationship evolves and the fun never stops! Jamie’s Journey teaches us the importance of connecting and communicating with our children-with the absence of today’s technology. Jamie shares her “Gems” of advice to other teens and parents about the life long rewards of truly spending time and connecting with our parents and friends!
"A valiant first effort by a rising young star. Look for big things from her." - Randy Gage, Author of the New York Times bestseller, Risky Is the New Safe
Unscripted Mom is a year old. And I am feeling grateful. Just over a year ago, I was filled with fear and uncertainty as I thought about sharing my musings as an official "blogger." The self-doubt nearly derailed me as I wrestled with notions like, “No one really cares what I have to say; bloggers are a dime a dozen and I am not that original; I have no idea what I am doing; who is really going to read my stuff anyway?
But with some encouragement of close family and friends, and the advice and expertise of Gran Harlow, Michelle Millar and Nate Garvis, I pushed my insecurities out of the way, just enough to be able to push the “publish” button on my blog site. And so, on March 21, 2013, my first blog entry, “She’s Going to College” was released into the blogosphere.
It was both liberating and terrifying.
A year later, it still is. I sweat every time I push that publish button.
And yet, 60-some posts later, I continue to learn and grow with each word I write and every post I publish. I have learned that blogging, and the connections that have arisen from being honest about my life as a mom have enriched my life tremendously, and most notably, have helped me through one of the hardest parental transitions I've experienced—sending my first born away to college. As tears fell on my keyboard while writing about the pain and excitement I felt during this time, little did I know that I would find so much comfort in reading and hearing the heartfelt comments left on my Facebook page, blog or shared with me in person. I also loved being able to share my recent "life altering" trip to Peru with you and was extremely moved by your words of support and kindness.
I am grateful and honored to be able to share pieces of my life with my readers and appreciate that my blog has served as a vehicle for bringing me closer to you in a way that may not have ever happened otherwise. Recently, my cousin, who lives out of state and I have not seen or spoken to in years, sent me an email asking if we could get our extended family together during her visit to MN. Her thoughtful words reminded me why I blog, “It is so great getting to know you through your blogs. I feel that we actually have a lot in common underneath my first impressions of you and your family as ‘perfect.’ I am really looking forward to spending a little time with you and your perfectly imperfect family. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about parenting.”
Being able to convey the message that we can all safely ditch any notion of striving to be the perfect family or the perfect mom; that we all experience strength and struggle every day in our efforts to be a good parent, spouse, friend and person; and most importantly, that even on really tough days when we feel like we are doing NOTHING right (like how I just yelled at my son yesterday, after recently professing in a blog post that I had adapted a new approach to anger), we are not alone in this imperfect journey.
I have also learned that I am also not alone in my blogging journey, even though it can feel that way sometimes. I am still trying to understand all the behind the scenes blog minutiae, like how to not obsess over wordpress analytics, which tallies the number of people visiting my blog every day, every month, every year; how not to compare myself to other bloggers; to realize that there is a way (yes, Amy Z) to make a few bucks doing this; to be a little less emotional when I send pieces to publications, and editors either accept them (yay!) or reject them (ouch! which is often followed by devastation and then the desire to chuck my computer into a nearby lake!). Managing the business of blogging requires assistance, and I have been incredibly fortunate in finding local writer friend, turned to “real friend” Nina Badzin. Nina has literally walked me through the entire blogging and social media world, introduced me to everyone she thought would be helpful for me to know, celebrated my blogging and writing victories (no matter how small) and has helped keep my lap top from ending up at the bottom of one of our 10,000 after every rejection letter.
And there are others: Stephanie Sprenger and Jessica Smock, authors of the Her Stories Project book, which has been truly an honor to be a part of,, and Galit Breen, Pilar Gerasimo and Kate Hopper who have been instrumental in helping me fine tune my writing and stay focused on my goals. And for all the other writers and bloggers who I have met through the blogosphere over this past year (Lee Wolfe Blum, Mary Dell Harrington, Jen Stephens, Kerstin March, Jessica Halepis, Vikki Reich, Emily Mitty Cappo, Jenny Maxey, Tracy Morrison, Vicky Willenberg, Lisa Barr, Cindy Moy and Annie Fox to name a few), I am truly grateful and inspired by all of you. And to those of you who have shared my work on your wonderful sites, I thank you as well.
I am also grateful to my husband who has supported me in this journey that is certainly not paying many (okay, any) bills and often takes me away from being present with him. And to my kids, who have given me permission to share pieces of them through my writing, and it goes without saying that Unscripted Mom would not exist without them. And to all of my close family members and friends, who were so kind to read, share and comment on my posts before anyone else even knew about my blog (and even when the posts weren’t that good); and they have yet to tire of me asking them to take a "quick look" at a piece before I post it or send it to an editor.
One year ago, I semi-subscribed to the notion that blogging is just a fancy term for public journaling, and maybe there is some truth to that. But my blog has allowed me to connect with readers in an authentic way, and has provided the space for you to share your insights with me as well, which is truly what makes my writing worthwhile and meaningful.
I am not quite sure where my blogging/writing journey will take me in this next year. My book that I “finished” in December is back on the editing table, but will be out by the time my son graduates next year…or else! I also am excited about contributing regularly to Your Teen Magazine and TC Jewfolk.
But for now, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your support, for opening your hearts to my writing and for journeying through the unchartered waters of parenthood with me. If you would like to help celebrate Unscripted Mom’s first birthday, you can do so by “liking” Unscriptedmom’s Facebook page (if you have not already done so). That would be icing on the cake!
Upon walking into Temple Israel to volunteer at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service Healthy Youth-Healthy Communities Annual Conference in Minneapolis a few weeks ago, I ran into to JFCS’s Executive Director, Judy Halper, and we began talking about different aspects of parenting. We landed on the subject of parenting as a form of caretaking and she explained how the cycle of caretaking continues for the rest of your life. “I went straight from caring for my children to caring for my parents,” Judy explained. “It’s a continuation of the caretaking role. And you are never done caring for your children.”
Agreed. I am most definitely not done parenting my college freshman daughter. Through texts, facetime and phone calls, I am still advising her on her finances, relationships, class schedules, health concerns, and keep an up-to-date pulse on her overall wellbeing. I make myself available to listen to her and try to figure out the difference between what she really needs from me and what she wants, and how to best support her from afar. The out-of-sight-out-of-mind theory does not apply to mothers and their children. My daughter is in my thoughts every day. When she has a bad day, my heart feels the same kind of ache it did when she had a bad day at home, and sometimes it’s more difficult because I can’t hug her or look into her eyes to see what she is not telling me over the phone. However, it has been a tremendous growing experience for both of us to learn that she is very resilient and highly capable of taking care of herself on her own—thank goodness.
As for my parents, I have difficult time imagining them any different than the young, hip, active couple that they have been throughout my life. I am grateful every day that they are healthy, thriving and completely self-sufficient (I actually feel like they run circles around me sometimes). I do, however, have many friends who are in caretaking roles with their parents while raising kids in their home, and I see how very difficult it can be.
A close friend of mine, who has two teenagers, has been caretaking for her parents since she was 15 (her mom is legally blind and her dad has hearing issues with his hearing). When explaining how she manages parenting her children and simultaneously caring for her parents, she says it is an ongoing challenge, “It is a lot about balancing the different worries and balancing the needs of both. I want my kids to be safe and supervised, and I want to be present for their teenage challenges; and yet the worry about my parents is more anxiety-fueled. I worry about them waking up every morning, about them driving, falling, managing their meds, and their ability to care for themselves and each other.”
On the flip side, my friend reveals that as tough as this juggling act can be, there are also rewards in this two-fold caregiving process, “Caring for my parents has provided a wonderful example for my kids. In seeing me take care of my mom and dad, my kids have developed a sensitivity for my parents, and demonstrate their caring nature toward them and toward me. As I age, I realize and appreciate how my much parents have done for me and I am grateful that I can care for them in the way that no outsider could.”
I witnessed my husband care for his father in this way as he fought a five-year battle with pancreatic cancer for longer than we all thought possible. As challenging as it was for my husband to balance his responsibilities to his immediate family and work, with his quest to care for his father, he demonstrated that it is possible to make it work. Just as we feel the need to care for our children, most of us also feel a desire or duty to care for, or at least coordinate care for our parents when they lose the ability to care for themselves.
For now, I appreciate the fact that my parents are strong and independent, and that our relationship is still focused on spending quality together and having fun. I am embracing these times because I do know they can’t last forever, and if and when my parents need me to care for them, as will always be the case with my children, I will be there.
It’s a blessing to be able to edit my children’s writing assignments with confidence, yet it’s a curse when I am unable to just look at their writing as a work of art, which is uniquely theirs, not needing to be fixed. It is a blessing when one of my children comes to me with a problem that needs solving and I can help them process, analyze trouble-shoot until we find a solution. It’s a curse when I see one of my children struggling with an issue, and they insist on NOT needing or wanting my help—not even just a little—and my tongue becomes nearly bloody from trying to bite it.
When I see problems in my relationship with my husband—hello Bob the Builder. The tools come out and I start peeling, scraping and pounding, “What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with us? He needs to change. I need to change. And we have to do all of this changing…right now.” When I see a friend who has a problem, the “I want to help you, I need to help you” voice takes hold, and a fixer-upper project begins. While sometimes my desire to help can be constructive, sometimes it can be hurtful, especially when my friend just wants to heard, not fixed. And with myself, well, that is the biggest, most daunting project of all, as there is a constant stream of “what needs to be fixed” questions flowing through my head.
Wearing a hard hat can come in handy sometimes. It keeps me hyper-aware of all the “work” that needs to be done, within myself and with those around me. I am constantly trying to better myself, take on more projects and challenges, and I am often a good motivator of others to do the same. But given the recent studying and volunteer work I have been doing, I’ve learned that being a fixer can be unnecessarily draining, frustrating and ineffective. Because in reality, being a fixer often means that we start with the premise that people (myself at the top of the list) are broken.
On my recent Smile Network mission, our main purpose was to repair children’s cleft lips and palettes. Of course I loved this because it was a “fixing” mission. What I realized, however, was that even though these children needed their mouths repaired, they were not broken people. Their families loved and cared for them exactly as they were. Parents knew that the surgery would help their child find more acceptance in society, and in some extreme cases, it would save their life. But when I witnessed how the mothers gazed lovingly and adoringly into their child’s eyes; the way they held, protected and comforted their child, I realized that these mothers did not think their child was broken. They were at the hospital to have a doctor fix their child’s lip and palette, not their soul. Because these mothers unconditionally loved their children, and would love them no more or no less once they were “fixed.”
None of us are perfect and we all require some tweaking along the way, but if we start with the belief that we are whole and good, then it would make a lot of sense for me to hang up my tool belt and embrace the imperfections in myself and in others. I'm inspired to trade in my hammer and nails and utilize more love, acceptance and support in my relationships with my spouse, children, friends, family members and myself.
Gratitude is word that is thrown around a lot these days. It’s right up there with “vulnerability,” which Brene’ Brown has made somewhat famous. I often talk to my yoga students about connecting with gratitude and the importance of counting our blessings. I am exploring gratitude in my Mussar group this week and I realized that this work, combined with my participation in the Smile Network mission has prompted me to take an even deeper look at the true healing power of gratitude.
One of the last days at the Lima Children’s Hospital, the volunteers were getting ready to leave the hospital and one of the mothers gathered the Smile Network team and asked our translator to translate for her. “Please tell them that we know what they are doing for us and we know how much it takes for them to be here,” Rony translated her words. Let them know that they are wonderful people and that we are so grateful for what they are doing for us. May G-d bless them always.” This mother proceeded to give each of us a small token of her appreciation.
Fabriano's mother (pictured above), who could not see her son for nearly three days because he had to stay in the operating room instead of being moved to the ICU (because there were no beds available), never once showed anything other than complete gratitude toward all the volunteers and doctors. Her bright eyes were filled with appreciation and hope every time I walked passed her in the waiting area (where she camped out day and night). I lost track of how many times I hugged her during those days, as I felt such a strong, love-filled energy illuminating from her. I have never in my life seen such pure gratitude. It did not occur to her to lash out and demand answers like a lot of us might do in her situation, and it was not because she wasn’t bright or that she didn’t understand the full scope of what was happening. It was gratitude that kept her humble, calm, patient, kind and appreciative.
Other mothers, although grateful, did express some levels of frustration when the hours of waiting with their hungry, crying children, and dealing with so many unknown aspects of the surgery, including when it would take place, began to take its toll. I did not fault them for this, as there were some agonizing days for many families. But when I felt their eyes glaring at me as I walked through the waiting area, I realized that they were allowing negative feelings of frustration to diffuse their connection to gratitude, which caused them to briefly lose sight of the fact that their child would soon receive a life changing operation made possible by people who donated their time, money and energy to help them.
I realize how often I, and so many of us, even when we feel gratitude, so easily lose our connection to it in our every day lives. We say to ourselves:
- I am grateful I was able to go to yoga today but I didn’t like the music the teacher played.
- I am grateful I was able to take a vacation with my husband but I didn’t like the hotel.
- I am grateful my son is happy and healthy but I wish he was an A student not a B student.
- I am glad my daughter is playing high school tennis but I wish she was on varsity not JV.
Leaving the “but” out of a gratitude sentence is an extremely difficult task for so many of us. However, as I am retraining my brain to react differently to anger, I am also working to stay closely connected to gratitude in the deepest way possible. I have realized that “thank you,” does not always translate to, “I’m grateful.” It's not a given.
We teach our children to say thank you when people do things for them but what about when people don’t do things for them or when they don’t get what they want? Do we teach them that to feel grateful then? Do we feel grateful when we don’t get exactly what we want? How do we model gratitude for our children?
Recently, I have had a few experiences with my kids where I tried to make a conscious effort to turn to gratitude and push away my usual go-to responses like frustration and annoyance. The universal gratitude no-brainer for mothers is that we are grateful for our children. If we can keep this feeling in the forefront of our mind and heart, many of our frustrations we feel in dealing with them can be significantly lessened.
My son did not do as well as he wanted to on an important test he had been preparing for. Instead of heading right to feelings of frustration with him (he didn’t study enough), or with myself (I should have pushed him harder), I paused. I found gratitude in that through his disappointment, he learned essential life lessons about the value of hard work and the importance of being honest with himself about his effort. He realized on his own that he needed to study harder and verbalized a commitment to do so (without me having to say a word). My other son missed his ride to school this week because he was being extremely pokey and difficult in the morning, so I had to drive him to school. As the frustration arose within and I wanted to say all sorts of things to him that would not have been constructive, I paused. I looked over at him sitting next to me in the front seat of the car, and realized that I couldn’t even remember that last time that the two of us were alone together. I took a deep breath, released the frustration and turned to gratitude, “Not great that you were pokey this morning, buddy, but I am really glad to have some time alone with you. Tell me about the project you are working on for history.” He smiled and proceeded to tell me all of the details.
This Friday Fave is an excerpt from Book #1 and deals with gaining a better understanding of why your teen acts the way she does.
“Troublesome traits like idiocy and haste don’t really characterized adolescence. They’re just what we notice most because they annoy us or put our children in danger.” (National Geographic, October 2011, Beautiful Brains by David Dobbs)
In a November 28, 2010, article in the Star Tribune’s Parade section entitled “What’s Really Going on Inside Your Teen’s Head,” the author, Judith Newman reveals “When my friend’s son—a straight-A student and all-around sweetheart—recently ended up in the hospital getting his stomach pumped because he went out drinking with friends for the first time and had now clue how much was too much, that is when I realized: There is just no predicting. Even for the most responsible kids, there is always that combustible combination of youth, opportunity and one bad night.” Newman goes on to explain, “Truth is, the teenage brain is like a Ferrari: It’s sleek, shiny, sexy, fast, and it corners really well. But it also has really crappy brakes.”
Researchers and scholars have been studying and writing about the adolescent and teen years for centuries. Aristotle characterized adolescents as lacking in sexual self-restraint, fickle in their desires, passionate and impulsive, fonder of honor and of victory than of money, and prone to excess and exaggeration (AC Petersen, BA Hamburg - Behavior Therapy, 1986 - Elsevier). More recently scientists and researchers have been analyzing the teenage brain in an attempt to find a scientific basis for teens’ frequent unpredictability, moodiness, carelessness, and an almost frantic desire to take risks.
Currently, there are some conflicting theories about the teenage brain. One theory states that a young adult’s brain is not fully developed until the age 25. However, Dobbs looks at recent research that sheds a slightly different view of the teenage brain. Instead of looking at the adolescent brain as an immature of a work in progress, Dobbs discusses a theory that closely resembles the principle of natural selection. The “adaptive-adolescent story,” as Dobbs calls it, “casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.” B.J. Casey, neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College concurs, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then.”
Research reveals that the when a child is six years old, her brain is already at 90 percent of its full size by and that most of the subsequent growth is the thickening of her head skull. However, between the ages of 12 and 25, ”the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade,” according to Dobbs. During this time, the main difference between and adult and teen brain is that teens value rewards more than consequences and are thus more apt to make riskier decisions.
In a study that compared brain scans of 10-year-olds, teens and adults, while the participants played a sort of video game with their eyes, that involved stopping yourself from looking at a flickering light or “response inhibition.” It turns out that 10-year-olds fail at this almost half the time but teens, by the age of 15 could score as well as adults if they are motivated, resisting temptation 70 to 80 percent of the time. The most interesting part of this study, however, was in looking at the brain scans, the teens brains were virtually the same size as the adults but “teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focused—areas the adults seemed to bring online automatically.” So, as it turns out, teens do understand risk, but value risk versus reward differently than adults. “In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.”
So the next time your teen does something really “stupid,” remind yourself that he is flexing his adaptive muscles. You can certainly set rules and limits on what behaviors are acceptable, appropriate and safe but know that there is more going on his brain than we may think. He will continue to push his boundaries, and according to this research, this is exactly what he should be doing.
Even though the above-mentioned principals make sense on paper, the reality of living through the adolescent and teen years with your children can be terrifying and maddening at times.
Here are a few pieces of tried and true advice that the moms I surveyed offered about managing the adolescent/teen years:
“We did (and still do) our fair share of "biting our tongue." There are so many times I want to tell them what they should do, or offer suggestions, but I think the times that we have sat back and let them make mistakes on their own have been good and have helped prepare them for the real world. I'm glad they made those mistakes while they were home with us and we could help support them.” (Mother of three children, ages 24, 22,18, married 26 years)
“My key strategy is TRUST! Trust your teenager until they prove other wise. They will respect you a lot more! I have seen parents who hover and get really involved. I have trusted my teenagers and when they get off track we re-direct, but I think they value my trust and genuinely want to hear what I have to say. It's the ‘I'm on your side’ kind of attitude.” (Mother of four children, ages 18, 16, 14, 12, married 19 years)
"I tried to allow them as much privacy as possible while also encouraging them to share as much of their lives as they were comfortable sharing. That was the only strategy I had. Fortunately, it worked. Of course, there were many difficult moments, or maybe I should say months, but generally I felt they knew what they were doing and I supported them as best I could. When the anger level rose to red, we walked away from each other, but never for too long." (Mother of two adult children, ages 42 and 40, grandmother of four, divorced)
“The angry man should make himself like a deaf person who does not hear, and like a mute person who does not talk. If he must speak, it should be in a low voice and with words of reconciliation. Even if his heart is burning like fire, and his rage flames within him, he is capable of controlling his words.” (by Rabbi Eliezer Papo from his essay entitled "Anger")
This passage, which hit me like a ton of bricks, was part of my assigned reading for a Mussar study group I recently joined (“The goal of Mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul.” - The Mussar Institute). It forced me to reflect on how I often jump to anger when parenting my children, causing me to act from a position of reactivity=weakness, rather than from a position of proactivity=strength.
As I try to incorporate the Mussar principles into my life and find a more peaceful way to parent, I am committing myself to reducing the amount of time I spend feeling and/or acting angry.
When my teenager talks disrespectfully to me, my former reactive response looked something like this:
a) Quickly becoming angry, raising my voice, and telling him how disappointed I am in his behavior,
b) taking his behavior personally,
c) feeling like I have done something catastrophically wrong in parenting him,
d) feeling like I must CHANGE him immediately or he is going to disrespect his teachers and coaches, and will grow up to be a disrespectful adult.
(Note: b, c and d all exacerbate the anger.)
It has taken me only 19 years of parenting to realize that I rarely, if ever, feel good about myself when I slip into the pattern above. Even when I achieved my desired outcome, I felt a certain amount of shame whenever I acted in anger.
As I work to take a much more proactive, positive approach when facing a potentially upsetting scenario with my children, spouse or anyone I encounter, I need to embrace this idea: Anger is a choice. Perhaps I won't always be able to control the angry feelings that arise within, however, I can make the choice to not let them control me. I can choose to move away from anger, and toward something more productive.
In reference to the above-mentioned issue with my son, my new “working toward” pattern includes:
a) an understanding that his behavior is not about me—something could be bothering him (he had a bad day at school, at baseball practice, he lost in fantasy football or is nervous about his upcoming chemistry test).
b) trusting myself that I have indeed taught him the difference between respectful and disrespectful behavior, and that even with that knowledge, he is going to slip up sometimes.
c) accepting and loving him for who he is and knowing that he is a good person who is acting negatively at that moment.
d) talking to him calmly and telling him that I know he probably does not intend to talk to me disrespectfully but his tone sounds that way, and that I would like him to realize how it is unnecessary and inappropriate for him to speak disrespectfully to his mother, and there will be consequences for doing so.
The ultimate test for me is when my peaceful, anger-free approach toward him does not curb his level of disrespect but triggers more. This would be a good time to borrow from the Rabbi and “make myself like a deaf person who does not hear,” or literally walk away in an effort to thwart any rising anger that would cause me to be reactive.
It’s also important to realize that diffusing one’s own anger is the best way for a parent to teach children how to diffuse theirs.
The Beads Spilling Test
Last week, my 9-year-old daughter was frantically getting ready for school, as she had come downstairs later than our agreed upon time. She hastily put her coat on and in the process knocked over a huge bucket of beads, turning our mudroom floor into a sea of sparkly beads.
All three of my kids stopped in their tracks and six eyes were upon me.
a) Yell at Jo, causing her to burst into tears,
b) make her pick up every last bead and cause all three of my kids to be late for school,
c) feel terrible for the whole day.
My new reality, which actually surprised me almost as much as it surprised the kids:
a) I took a deep breath and said, “You guys need to go. You are going to be late. Jo, I know this was an accident. Please come down stairs earlier next time so you don’t have to be in such a hurry. Have a good day, guys!”
b) I turned away from them and began to pick up the beads.
My kids continued to stare at me for a while longer, checking to see if there would be a delayed outburst. Jo’s eyes turned from panic-stricken to relieved. “Bye mom,” they called as they walked out of the house to pile in my son’s car. “Love you!”
I literally smiled as I picked up the rest of the beads and said to myself, "This was definitely the better choice. Remember this."
As I look back at my last post about preparing for my trip to Peru, I notice that much of my focus was about the anxiety I felt in leaving my family for nearly two weeks. I am extremely grateful to have returned home safely and to realize that most of my nervousness about leaving was, of course, completely unnecessary. My kids didn’t miss a beat in my absence, and my experience in Peru was everything I hoped for and more, impacting the deepest parts of my soul.
No one can prepare you for how you are going to feel when you are immersed in a place where you see so clearly the fragility of life, and yet see how incredibly strong the power of love is. A place where you feel that you are making a difference and yet there is so much more you want to do to help.
I was immersed in a world so far from my own. A world in which, despite my Rosetta Stone lessons, I struggled to communicate with the Spanish-speaking Peruvians. And yet, through my broken Spanish and their broken English, we often found that we could understand one another. I was in awe of how most of the Peruvians I met lived with so little, and yet they did not complain.
Many of the “life-altering” aspects of my journey are buried deep in my heart, however, I am going to try to give you a glimpse of how the Smile Network mission prompted me to access parts of myself that I didn’t even know existed. Thus, this blog post is longer than most, as I attempt to make some sense of, to process and to share with you some of the ways in which this experience has enriched my life and has significantly opened my heart and mind.
The Universal Language of Mothers=Love
Sixty-plus mothers (and several fathers) arrived with their children at the Children’s Hospital in Lima last week. Perhaps they had seen a flyer, or were informed by a doctor or friend that Smile Network International was to arrive at the Children’s Hospital in Lima on Feb. 1st. Some traveled for days by bus, with little or no money to support themselves. One mom explained that she had been staying in Lima with relatives for two weeks because she did not want to miss the opportunity for her child to have surgery.
On intake day, Nan and Dawn (friends who accompanied me on the mission) and I handled medical records, and gave each patient and their parent/s a number. At the end of the long day, the doctors (two plastic surgeons from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and one from Cook Children’s Hospital in Texas, along with two residents from Mayo, and the chief of plastic surgery at the Lima Children’s Hospital) provided Gina, our mission coordinator and Kim Valentini, founder of Smile Network, the surgery schedule for the week. In turn, Gina and Kim, (with the help of the mission’s co-lead, Peruvian born, Ronnie, and Mira, another translator) alerted the families of their child’s surgery date and time,.
In the days that followed, however, we would soon realize that schedule changes were more the norm than the exception. Variables that were out of our control like prolonged surgeries and striking hospital workers (which occurred two of the 6 days we were there) made it nearly impossible to stick to the original schedule. The schedule changes were agonizing to some of the patients and their families (and the volunteers felt their pain as well).
Mothers and their children waited at the hospital from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., with no comfortable place to sit, no air conditioning (temps in the 80s) and no toilet paper in the bathrooms, in hopes that their child would be called for surgery. And most of them were...eventually. The patients, ranging in age from 2 months to 10 years, needed to fast for 12 hours before surgery, and their cries of hunger could be heard well beyond the 3rd floor, where dozens of families crowded together to wait, and to hope.
Eight-year-old Lisbeth, was scheduled for a palette surgery on Monday (surgery day 1). After fasting all day, she was sent home Monday evening because the doctors were held up in another surgery. Volunteers assured her that her surgery would be on Tuesday and to come back the next morning fasting. When our mission coordinator had to break the news to her Tuesday evening that she would not have the operation that day either, she dropped her head into her hands, and said, “Oh my G-d.” Most of the volunteers cried with her and her devoted mother.
By Wednesday afternoon, Lisbeth was finally called for surgery. The nurses placed her on the gurney and led her to the elevator that would take her up to the operating room floor. Her mother looked at me with pleading eyes and motioned with a head tilt that said, “Please go with her.” I bolted up to the 7th floor and made it in time to meet Lisbeth at the elevator. Her eyes were filled with fear. All the waiting and the anticipation, and now the time had come for her to have her second operation to close her cleft palette. (Even when palette surgery is performed once, as patients grow, their palettes can open again, and a subsequent surgery can be necessary. Smile Network did not perform Lisbeth’s first surgery.)
Closing her palette meant that food and liquid would not pour out of her nose when she ate and drank, and that her speech would become more understandable.
I stayed with her as she waited in the hall outside the operating rooms. I hugged her and held her hand as tears dripped down her face, and tried to tell her in my broken Spanish that she was going to be okay. As the nurses rolled her into OR #2, my hand stayed connected to hers. I could sense her fear growing as she took in the machines, sharp instruments and needles present in the operating room. “Mama,” she cried, and I squeezed her hand tighter. I could no longer stop my own tears as I looked at her and thought of my youngest daughter, about the same age as Lisbeth. Despite her attempts to fight him off, the anesthesiologist secured the mask over her mouth. As she breathed in the sedating gas, she soon fell into a deep sleep. It was time for me to let go of her hand so I could step out into the hall and regain my composure.
“This is my girl,” I said to the doctor as he whisked past me to enter the operating room. “Take good care of her.” He nodded.
Lizbeth’s surgery was successful.
Fabriano is a beautiful 5-year-old boy who had a severe cleft palette. His mother is a single mother whose deep love for and devotion to her son is transparent. Fabriano’s surgery was extremely complicated and our amazing team of doctors worked for more than five hours to close up the gaping hole in his palette. Fabriano did not fair well after the surgery and needed to remain on a ventilator. There were no available rooms in the ICU and so for two days, Fabriano remained in the OR, because it held the only available ventilator. This meant that his mother was not allowed to see him. Our mission photographer took pictures of Fabriano to show his mother, which brought her some comfort. On day three, an ICU room opened up and the last I heard, Fabriano was improving, and that he is going to be okay.
Fabriano and his mother are continually in my prayers.
There is a story for each of the patients that Smile Network treated throughout the week, and I experienced many more “world stands still” moments. As I banded and gowned patients, rocked crying babies, played with older children waiting for surgery, distributed, toys, blankets and care kits that were donated to Smile Network, visited with other (non-Smile Network) patients on the ward (some whom have been there or will be there for months for various surgeries, recoveries and/or treatments), comforted mothers, chatted with fathers, fed and held babies after surgery, observed cleft lip and palette surgeries and transported messages from the OR to anxious mothers, and witnessed the elation and relief of mothers seeing their baby’s transformed smile for the first time after surgery, my heart was continually bursting with love and compassion for the patients and their families.
With Love, There is Sometimes Pain
There is an inevitable and unavoidable sadness that occurs when spending a week at a children’s hospital. Sadness in witnessing the sheer anguish of parents who had just received the news that their 4-year-old son did not make it through the brain surgery performed by Peruvian surgeons in an OR adjacent to the designated Smile Network’s operating rooms. My heart continues to ache for these parents. I can still see their faces.
Sadness in seeing the haunted, blank stare of a 16-year-old girl holding her 2-month-old baby after he was unable to undergo the cleft lip and palette surgery because the anesthesiologists could not stabilize him under sedation. And then later, when I saw her eyes filled with tears as she tried to console her crying baby and asked her if she had eaten all day, if she had any money, or if anyone was coming to the hospital to see her and her baby. Her answer to all three questions was a simple, empty, “no.” I gave her a sandwich, and put some cash in her hand, and hugged her—a child, all alone, with a two-month-old baby to care for.
I wanted to tell her it was going to be okay but I couldn’t.
As I zigzagged between the sadness of some mothers and the elation of others, I tried to keep my own feelings in check. I was grateful that I could offer a smile, a hug or my arms to hold a baby. I loved to hear a mother’s sigh of relief and see her eyes fill up with tears of happiness when I delivered the messages from the OR. “I saw your baby. He’s doing great. The doctors said that the surgery is going really well. It won’t be much longer.”
I am grateful that I was able to be a part of an incredible team of doctors, residents, translators, a doctors' assistant, and a photographer who, in following Kim’s lead, volunteered their time, expertise and their hearts to practiced Tikun Olam (repairing the world) and reshape the lives of those helped at the Children’s Hospital in Lima.
I love knowing that each one of the families will walk away from the hospital, not only with a child whose smile is hopefully brighter, but also with the notion that there are people in this world who care about them deeply, and are willing to provide help. Kim Valentini formed the Smile Network from a place of love and compassion. Her daughter, when once asked if it was hard for her to have her mom gone so much simply stated, “If my mom isn’t taking care of these people, I don’t know who would.”
And the people who Kim touches with her work feel her commitment to them. The love and appreciation expressed by the Peruvian children and the families we served was immense. Parents and grandparents brought hand made gifts and small bottles of wine to the volunteers. They told us through their tears that they understood how much we are doing for them and that are eternally grateful.
What these people probably do not realize, however, is what a tremendous impact they have had on me; how grateful I am for the way they shared their love and trust with me; and that they have expanded my heart in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
As I said my emotional goodbyes to my new amigos in Peru, I hugged each one and told them, “Yo no te olvidaré.”
I will never forget you.