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...
Let’s check over here,” I motion to my 12-year-old daughter to follow me to the cosmetics isle. This is our fourth trip to Target in the last few weeks for the sole purpose of buying supplies for the new obsession gripping tweens all over the country—SLIME.
The current desired ingredient is a new one. “Baby powder is supposed to make the slime softer and less sticky,” my daughter, now an expert slime chemist, explains to me. She also assures me that she will be able to pay back the money we’ve spent on supplies with the money she collects from her fellow classmates (most of whom are also in the slime manufacturing and sales business) in exchange for her magnificently mastered mixture of shaving cream, glue, contact solution, and now baby powder.
Shampoo, body wash, lotions…I am not seeing the baby powder anywhere. My agitation rises as I curse myself for being sweet talked into this inconvenient trek to Target on a night when my son needs help with an assignment, my husband is at a work dinner, and I have to teach my teen writing class in an hour. I calm myself with the notion that at least this obsession, unlike other bygones like silly bands, does involve a creative process when mixing, measuring, and experimenting to form the germ-collecting balls of goo.
“Hi!” I find myself almost yelling to the young, exhausted-looking woman standing behind the nearby pharmacy counter. “Can you please tell me where the baby powder is?”
Before I even let the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-lady look on her face throw me into a shame pit, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and led her briskly out of the pharmacy area murmuring, “Oh my gosh, never mind.”
We both erupted in giggles as we headed over to the “baby” isle for the elusive “baby” powder.
My internal Target compass paused as we pass the girls section, our usual go-to area. “The baby section is over by electronics, I am pretty sure,” I muttered, still smiling at the irony.
And then it hit me.
The baby aisle had completely fallen off of my radar.
I could not recall the last time I had even gone near the avenue of pacifiers, diaper genies, bottles and diapers. As I walked toward baby land with my baby, disguised as a 12-year-old, I realized that I no longer knew the layout of this section that for decades I was able to navigate with my eyes closed. I didn’t even recognize some of the items on the shelf.
How could this be? This was MY territory! And now, I had forgotten it even existed!
“Mom, here, I found it,” my daughter’s sweet voice lulled me out of my trance. “Let’s go! You’ve got to get to your class,” she reminded me.
I stood motionless, my eyes scanning the baby items stacked neatly on the shelves. “I miss this, “ I said. She tracked my gaze to the shelf full of diapers.
“You miss changing my diapers,” she said coyly with a playful smile on her face.
“No I miss my babies,” I told her with sincerity, ignoring her sarcasm. I miss holding you in my arms, your baby smell, and hugging you and kissing you as much as I want to.”
“Well, I don’t,” she quipped again, her smile growing even bigger. “Ugh!” I groaned and grabbed my belly in reaction to her verbal gut-punch.
Walking to the check out lane, I leaned in to the nostalgia where I saw the baby faces of my four children--their beaming smiles as well as their looks of terror and disappointment. I could hear their shrieks of laughter and their blood curdling cries. I remembered my feelings of joy, agony, exhaustion, uncertainly, and fear that consumed me as a young mom trying to figure out what I was doing. And I remember yearning for the days when I would no longer need anything from the baby isle.
“Beep,” the self-checkout scanner hit the barcode on the bottom of the baby powder cuing me back to the present. My daughter placed the powder in the white plastic bag and started toward the exit.
“Jo, hold up,” I said as I quickly caught up to her and enveloped her in a hug. “You’ve grown up so fast, girl,” I said in earnest. “I love you so much.”
As I prepared for her to immediately shake me off, per usual, instead I felt her body sinking into my hug. “I love you too, mom,” she said softly. “And thanks for taking me to get the baby powder,” she added.
Scurrying through the Minnesota cold toward our car, I felt grateful that our slime mission led me back to the baby isle and for all the memories that I found there. I realized that just like slime, the passage of time often slips through our hands when we are not looking. And without notice, we open our eyes and find ourselves in the next isle at Target.
Driving home, I take in that my youngest child is on the cusp of becoming a teenager but in this moment, she thinks of nothing other than how much baby powder she will add to her slime mixture.
And I am grateful.
Grateful for all of the memories of my children's baby years, and grateful for the fact that there is nowhere I would rather be than right here right now.
Slime and all.
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...
To be a mom is to continually manage the fierce mama bear feelings that make us want to sprint to our child’s rescue, kiss away their tears, and band-aid away their pain. How do we know when to act on this instinct? And when to push our internal pause button in order to and give them the space they need to pick themselves back up when they fall and as they get older, lean into other support systems they’ve developed.
We don’t always know. But our hearts will guide us if we really listen.
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!
There is a new trend in the blogging world. Blog posts and even books that mark moments or periods of time like, “This is Childhood,” “This is Adolescence,” and “This is (My) 39.” They make time stand still by describing the real, raw aspects of the designated age or stage. As I inch closer to 50, I find myself stepping back and looking at my life, potentially about half-way over, or half way lived, or have way begun, depending on your vantage point. I have grappled with my feelings about getting older and realize that while I get ready to add a 48th candle to my birthday cake, I feel the need to do what all writers do: analyze and reflect. Forty-eight means something different to everyone, but this is what 48 is to me: It is NOSTALGIA. The nostalgia of the days when I could pick up my son, now a man/child, and hold him in my arms and tell him that I can make it all better; the days when all four of my children lived in my house with me. It is the nostalgia of my childhood memories, before husband, before children—the prehistoric days when all of the neighborhood kids played kick the can until dark and my parents didn’t know where I was; when phones were attached to walls, and there were no ipods, ipads, internet, social media, or botox; and there were vinyl records, 8-track and cassette tapes, the Grateful Dead, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels, and Starsky and Hutch, and my sister and me fighting for the best TV viewing spot on our green couch.
It is COVER-UP. Watching women around me tighten, plump, nip and tuck and wondering if I should too. It is spending too many dollars on “age-defying” products that are marketed to ME because I am the age that society wants to defy. It is knowing that in trying to cover up the wrinkles and the sagging, I am desperately trying to hang onto something that is slipping away, and no matter how much healthy food, water and vitamins I ingest, how much exercise I do, what clothes I wear or how I color and style my hair, the “something” that is inevitably leaving me is called—YOUTH! And there is no stopping its exit.
It is SEARCHING. Searching for the meaning of life. For the meaning of my life. Searching for my roots, for spirituality, for Judaism. It is studying with an Orthodox rabbi and joining a Reform synagogue. It is grappling with my identity, as a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a Jew, a writer, a reader, a yogi, a volunteer, a teacher and a student.
It is DISORIENTING. With four kids at very different life stages: college, high school, junior high and grade school. Disorienting with the reality that I on a given day, I can be managing a play date for one daughter and listening to details about a sorority date party from the other. Disorienting to have just celebrated one son's Bar Mitzvah and to soon be celebrating my other son's high school graduation. Disorienting to think that my oldest daughter will graduate college within a month of my youngest daughter's Bat Mitzvah, and that I could potentially be a grandma at my youngest child’s high school graduation. Disorienting to be planning for my 30-year high school reunion when I can so easily access vivid details (many of them embarrassing) of those powerful high school years, as if they happened yesterday.
It is UNCERTAINTY. Uncertainty about whether I made the right choice to leave my career and stay home with my kids (I am pretty sure I did). Uncertainty about whether I should go back to work. Uncertainty about who would even hire me now. Uncertainty about decisions, big and small, that I made and make for my kids and myself every day. Uncertainty about why bad things happen to good people, why I have lost friends and family members too soon. Uncertainty about the future; about being empty nester; about getting old, as in really old; uncertainty about death and how I will go down—will my mind go first or will my body fail me, or will I die in a plane crash (um, yes, one of my biggest fears in life...)?
It is PERIMENOPAUSE. It is crazy! It is crying and swearing and not remembering why I walked into the living room or where I was driving to, or why I was even mad at my husband this morning. It is exhausted…for no good reason. It is worry and obsessing, and worrying and obsessing some more. It is Prozac and Lexapro and the allure of taking the “happy pill” to calm the crazies, but opting instead for a weekly writing group, meditation, yoga and an available-when-needed therapist.
It is WORK. My work: writing, teaching yoga, and serving the community, which makes very little money but keeps me somewhat sane. My husband’s work that he does too much of to be able to support all of the kids and me so I that I can make sure that everyone in the family has clean underwear, decent meals, and some structure and fun in their lives, which happens most of the time, but definitely not all of the time.
It is LETTING GO. Letting go of what I think I should have been—an author of six successful books, a renowned public relations guru (my occupation before kids), a psychologist (my "I should have been/wish I would have been" career), and trying, trying, trying to accept who I am. It is letting my kids go, off to junior high, high school, off to drive a car, off to college. Letting go of the idea that I can control the outcome of their lives, and maybe even the outcome of my own life.
It is TRANSITION. Transition from being not yet old but not young either; from being a young parent with my oldest child to an older parent with my youngest. Transition of caring for aging parents. Transition of my own aging process, which blurs my thinking, my vision and my hearing, and yet, has prompted me to become more patient, more intentional, more compassionate and more present, with myself and with others. Transition of walking mindfully through my life, instead of running through or from it.
It is GRATITUDE. Gratitude for my blessed life and the amazing people in it. Gratitude that I stuck it out and continue to stick it out with my husband, in spite of many extremely trying times. Gratitude for my health, and for the health of those I love and care about. Gratitude that after years of sleepless nights, changing diapers, taming tantrums, tween angst and teenage drama, and the pain, panic and exhilaration of sending one off to college, I can now offer my voice of experience for newer moms.
It is ACCEPTANCE. Acceptance of childhood scars, anxiety, depression, addiction, fear and loneliness; being able to stare down my demons and tell them to go to hell, and accepting that sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t; and looking honestly at dysfunction—mine, my family’s, and my friends’, and finding compassion in all of it. Acceptance of my imperfect self that struggles with time management, organization and taking direction from others, but is driven and caring, and loves to give, and loves to love. Acceptance of dreams fulfilled, unfulfilled, and dreams that remain. Acceptance that life is really, really amazing and fun, and really, really hard and painful.
It is FREEDOM. Freedom to invest more energy in people, work and causes that ground, comfort and inspire me. Freedom to exit relationships that drain me. Freedom to be me, to practice self-care and self-compassion, to trust myself and others, to confidently use my voice, written and spoken, to tell my truth, to be vulnerable, and to encourage others to do the same.
It is THE MOMENT. Slowing down enough to understand that it is this moment that really matters, and believing that we are all exactly where we are supposed to be right now. It is taking time on my yoga mat or in meditation to quiet down the mind chatter and focus on the power of now. It is watching my kids, truly watching them, and listening to them, and seeing them for who they really are, with their struggles, with their attitudes, and with their independent, creative minds and their loving hearts. It is no longer rushing to get to the next phase of their lives or mine, but wanting time to stand still. Really. Just to be able to press pause. For a moment. So I can take it all in and cherish it.
It is LOVE. Love for my husband of 23 years, love for each one of my very unique, and very lovable kids, who have taught me more about life and love in the past 20 years of being a mother than I ever imagined possible. Love for my parents and mother-in-law who have shown me what it means to age gracefully, and that love, giving and receiving, is the most important thing in this life; and for my extended family and friends, both old and new, who continue to enrich my life each day, as each day becomes more and more precious.
It is knowing that every single day is a gift.
This is my 48.
Tis the season, for me anyway. I find fall to be, by far, the most transformative season: back to school, bracing for the MN winter, celebrating the high holidays, loaded with symbols of starting anew, letting go, forgiving, and looking forward. This fall feels even bigger. It feels huge. It feels loaded with stuff to be grateful for, to celebrate, stuff that involves new beginnings and exciting transitions in my kids’ lives and my life. But when I wake up with a racing heart and mind, and I start and stop writing multiple blog posts because none of them make sense, and I find myself scanning the Target parking lot for my car that I have zero recollection of parking, let alone driving there, I know that I am not embracing this transformative time, but racing through it. I am anywhere but here. Just ask my mom. She will tell you how I forgot that she was coming to pick up my daughter at school last week during conferences so she ended up wandering the halls of the school looking for my daughter for 45 minutes before running into my son, who directed her to my daughter. But I didn’t have a clue this was happening because, during that time, I was darting from classroom to classroom, like a harried teenager, hearing the voices of my kids’ teachers saying lovely things about my children, and I was feel’n pretty good and I may have had a moment of, “Okay, great, I must be doing something right.” Until, of course, I walked out of the math teacher’s room and spotted my mom, her eyes looking slightly puzzled and slightly pissed. “Nope. Never mind. I am not doing much of anything right.”
I am in the moment and a million miles away. Preparing for A’s Bar Mitzvah in three weeks and helping J with his college applications, due in three weeks; gearing up for my first ever self-care workshop that I am co-leading in two weeks and preparing yet another (please let this be the last), revision of my book outline that is, just guess, due to a publisher in 10 days. I am coming off of the high holidays, during which we attended not one, not two but three synagogues—a reformed, a conservative and an orthodox (I will save those details for another blog post); and S came home from college for Yom Kippur, which somewhat resembled a wonderful, exciting, but sometimes jolting, electric storm lighting up our house.
I’m in the moment and into panic in a matter of seconds. I question whether I will be able to pull off these next three weeks, manage the check list, and get it all done: the Bar Mitzvah details, all 20 zillion of them (thankfully divided between my sister and me, but I still don’t know what I am wearing); the writing, for which I require big blocks of time when my mind is calm and clear; providing college application assistance, yet another intended blog post topic, and for which I need more time and more patience, AND my son’s time and patience (which doesn’t all line up very often); the workshop preparation, which I need to tap into my experience of writing about researching and practicing self-care, while I am stretched to practice what I preach right now.
So I breathe my way back to the moment. And tell myself that yes, this will all happen. I will get through it. But I don’t want to just get through it! I want to feel it all, embrace the joy in each one of these milestones. So I drag myself to yoga, ground down, and set an intention to be present. And that works beautifully until that evening when I see my husband packing his suitcase for a three-day work trip. He sees my eyes widen, and then narrow. I expect him to say something calming, reassuring. But instead, he quickly reminds me that he will be traveling for two or three days of each of the next three weeks. Oh yeah, I had forgotten. My heart rate escalates and my mind kicks into high gear and spirals me into piling my entire to-do list into an already overcrowded area of my brain: Shit! The laundry, the dishes, the cooking, the no milk in the fridge and I think we only have one more roll of toilet paper in this house, and the engine light is on in my car, and there are unopened bills hanging out on the kitchen counter, and Jo has a soccer tournament in Rochester and three birthday parties this weekend, and A’s big science project is due, and the details of J’s college visits in two weeks still need to be finalized, and the senior parent ad for the yearbook is due, and my volunteer positions need attention, and there are a growing number of emails and texts that I have yet to read, let alone respond to...So sorry, my friends, I am trying.
And then I will myself to breathe again. And the spiraling stops as I remind myself that amidst all this mundane, almost whiney sounding to-do list, of which some or most will get done (or it won't), there lies the joyful stuff that trumps it all. And I work my way back to gratitude and the present moment. My husband and I laugh about how we may put our 10-year-old on a Greyhound and send her to Rochester for her soccer tournament, and that we may end up writing A’s Bar Mitzvah speech on the way to the synagogue that morning.
I will myself to trust that these next three weeks, with all their splendor and glory, and all of their mundane, will happen. And I will be there/be here. Present. Aware. Engaged. Grateful. I will do this by trying to allow myself to retreat from the lists and the panic, and to move toward lingering in the joy for as long as I can—especially the one that celebrates my baby boy becoming a Jewish adult. Yes, I will most definitely be lingering in that one.
Maybe it is because my daughter just turned 20; maybe it is because my second child is a senior in high school and we are knee deep in college applications and college visits trying to figure out where he will head off to next fall (gulp); maybe it is because I am a month away from my youngest son's Bar Mitzvah (gulp again); maybe it is because my husband turns 50 in March (wow); or maybe it is because my youngest daughter is in her final year of lower school and just today got rid of her Barbie Dream House and all of her Barbies (gasp!). But whether it is one or all of these biggies, I know that I have found myself feeling rather nostalgic lately. I wrote about what the aging process feels like for me, and how I am learning to let go of pieces of my youth and embrace the here and now. The waves of nostalgia often catch me off guard, and I feel like I want to reach out and touch the memories; to connect with them in a pinch myself kind of way to validate that the experiences were real, and that they still live somewhere within me. Without warning, this need to go back hit me during a recent writing group when the instructor gave us the prompt, "What is something quirky about you? Something that others may not know."
And my mind looked back and then forward, and my pen on paper took me here:
It started early on, way back then. When I was young, exuberant and carefree. When life felt light and easy. When every step was the beginning of a new adventure, a launching point of sorts. And so it started. The micro-hop—my skip step—that I added to the beginning of my gait. It felt organic, like the way I was supposed to move. And it was how I moved, in my early days as a gymnast when I would jump with excitement each and every time I was ready to launch into my favorite floor exercise sequence—round-off, back handspring, back tuck. Ahhh, how I loved how these movements flowed together like the most perfect wave tumbling toward the shore. I felt this rhythmic flow in my body even when I was nowhere near a gymnasium.
When it was time for me to walk to class, to recess, to practice or even to the bathroom, in spite of some jarring I received from my friends when they noticed my quirk, I always felt the need to add the skip step as I began to propel myself forward. The skip step automatically triggered my mind and muscles to access the incredible feelings of taking flight, which surged through my body and filled me with a timeless, spaceless sense of giddiness, levity and harmony.
But as the years progressed, and I grew into an awkward, agitated teen, I traded in my leotards for Grateful Dead t-shirts. Subsequently, as my life had lost a bit of its bounce and I wobbled on the bridge between youthood and adulthood, my skip step slowly disappeared. But it was a process, a skip step here, a skip step there would provide an occasional shot in the arm to keep me connected with those feelings of being so fully alive and free. Over time, and without recognition of the loss, my skip step all but vanished.
Three decades and four children later and I am in my front yard on a beautiful, sunny Minnesota spring day, watching my 10-year-old niece, a competitive gymnast, turn cartwheels and walk on her hands across the grass. “Hey, Auntie Julie, do you want to see what I just learned,” she asks eagerly, as her whole body visibly filling with the exhilaration that I recognized instantly. “Of course I do, ZZ (my affectionate adaptation of Lindsay)! Show me whatcha got,” I respond trying to contain my excitement.
My heart skips a beat as I watch with anticipation as she begins to launch. My mouth drops open as I see it—the skip step—my skip step—followed by her swift round off and perfectly executed back handspring. My heart is no longer in my body as it has most certainly jumped out.
Without thinking, I stand up. My mind becomes fierce, my body fueled by muscle memory. Nostalgia overruns any kind of logic, any kind of rationale. Before I know it, one barefoot is in front of the other, and there it is, my skip step…and I am running and I am free and I burst open into a powerful round-off and I am flying above the clouds. I am 10 and I love my skip step and my youth and my mobility and my levity. Upon my decent from the air, I power both feet downward to hit the prickly grass at precisely the same time, exactly as I was taught to do by my perpetually mean coach who acerbically screamed at me if one foot came down a millisecond before the other.
At the very moment I celebrated this very small but very large “look-at-me-now-coach” victory, I heard it. The rubber band-snapping, pop gun sounding snap that reverberated through my entire body and rung in my ears. The endorphins that served as a numbing agent swiftly began to lose their power, and the raw, unfiltered raging, burning sensation was unleashed. The pain—the ferocious, radiating, sizzling in my calf caused me to tumble to the ground writhing, moaning, crying, and biting my lip not to swear.
I looked up to see my niece’s terror stricken hazel eyes staring down at me. I tried with every ounce of my being to give her an “I am going to be okay” look, but a blank stare was the best I could muster.
What she couldn’t know, nor did I want her to know, was that behind my blank stare blared two very loud voices at war inside my head, simultaneously exalting and cursing every single skip step I ever took.
I kept it together this time. I really did. Soph and I busied ourselves with the typical back to college activities like combing every isle of Target and Whole Foods. We added some drama to the mix by performing a full fledged reconnaissance mission for the bag Soph left in the overhead bin on the airplane, which, after many tears and incessant phone calls to the airline, was eventually found in another city and returned. After a day and a half of hustle and bustle, I was able to say a coherent goodbye to her in the sorority house, her new home away from home, before she headed off to a house meeting. But as I watched her become swallowed up in a sea of her “sisters,” heading down the stairs, I was overcome with the desire to force time to stand still. Instead of heading directly out to my car for a clean break, my heart strings pulled me away from the exit and pushed me onto the stairwell leading up to her room.
Her room was quiet and calm—a stark contrast to the day before when four of us—Soph, her roommate and her roommate’s mom—crowded into her non-air-conditioned room on an 85-degree day and spent nearly 10 hours unpacking, organizing, assembling, cleaning, running out for necessary items and then organizing some more.
I scanned the room. A decorated letter S that she had “crafted” with her high school girlfriends a few days prior hung above her bed. An outline of the state of MN with a heart denoting the Twin Cites (another craft item) sat on top of her desk. My eyes then fell upon a picture of Soph, David and me taken at her high school graduation. It wasn’t a great picture of any of us, Soph and I agreed yesterday when she pulled it out of one of her many boxes of belongings. “Maybe I’ll find her a better picture,” I vainly thought as I cringed at my awkward smile in the photo. But unlike many of the other pictures of her family and friends that had yet to be put in frames or pinned to her wall, this particular picture—my daughter, standing between her parents, with an ear to ear grin on her face—was propped upright in a frame and centered on her desk.
As I felt the all-too-familiar lump build in my throat, I knew that the time had come to let myself feel what this inevitable separation meant to me. I had tried to convince myself that it would be easier the second time, and in many ways, it was. My daughter had taught me how to say goodbye last year at this time. And my prayers had been answered as our relationship had indeed stood the test of time and the 650 miles between us, and had ultimately grown even stronger and deeper. And yes, having her home for part of this summer was wonderful but also highlighted the many reasons that most 18+-year-olds definitely need to be heading out of the nest.
But I also knew that I would miss her.
It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you love with everything you are, even when you know that it is time for her to go.
Your heart feels the shift; braces for the void and tries to figure out how to fill the spaces between what was and what is. It tries to manufacture the cushion needed to transition from seeing your child every day to seeing her a handful of times a year, and possibly a portion of the summer. It compensates for the inability to hug her with your loving arms, by finding some kind of normalcy in saying I love you over the phone or via text message. It jumps around aimlessly, sometimes desperately with its overpowering need to protect her from afar. It aches and rejoices as it acknowledges the passage of time and basks in the treasured moments of her childhood, as well as in its hope for her future.
I pulled my tear-filled eyes away from the picture and fumbled through my purse for a piece of paper and a pen. It became imperative to me that I leave her a note to tell her one more time what she already knows: that I love her. But what she could not understand is the depth of love and connectedness that I feel for her, how mothering her has both challenged me and healed me to the core, and how hard it is for me to let her go—no matter what her age, and no matter how practiced I am at saying goodbye.
I willed my legs to move me toward the door and I caught another glimpse of the picture—mother and father and child—and I became overwhelmed with gratitude and comfort in knowing that we will continue to be her pillars from afar.
Parenting your teen inevitably stirs up a lot of memories of your own teen years. As you stare in awe at your 15-year-old driving a car for the first time, it can feel like yesterday that you first excitedly and nervously grasped onto the stirring wheel and told your foot to push on the gas pedal. When you catch your teen doing something “teen-like,” you may be reminded of the time you snuck out of parents’ house in the middle of the night and the dog started barking and gave you away (or maybe...hold breath...you didn’t get caught). As you help your teen navigate his or her teen joys and challenges, you will decide how much and what you want to share about your teen self. I have always been cautious with how much of my past I shared with my teens. I would imagine that most of us determine that some (or many) of our teen experiences should never be shared with our children. What we may not be aware of, however, is that some of the “secrets” we bury could be effecting how we parent our teens. “A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old-Secret” explores the how and why I decided to reveal a piece of my hidden past to my 17-year-old daughter. I am honored and thrilled to have this piece running in one of my favorite motherhood publications/blogs Brain, Child Magazine.
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.
This was no small task. Quite honestly, not posting pictures of my kids on social media has cramped my style a bit and has forced me to exercise a fair amount of restraint in this arena. To understand how and why I arrived at this Facebook turning point, read this post on Kveller, "Why I Will No Longer Post Photos of My Kids on Facebook." Please leave your comments (which I always love and appreciate) on the Kveller site. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one! Thanks for checking it out!
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…
My Friday Faves is a follow-up to a recent article I wrote for Kveller about leading a Passover mini-seder for the 3rd and 4th graders at my children’s Episcopalian school. I am thrilled to report that it was an awesome experience. The Jewish kids in the group formed a fabulous “choir.” They belted out the four questions and led the rest of the students in Dayenu. The choir wasn’t needed to lead “Let My People Go” because all the kids already knew this song from singing it during chapel, and they sang it loud and proud. My heart jumped as I asked the kids questions like who was the baby that was found in a basket floating down the Nile River and almost every hand darted up as the kids had to hold themselves back from yelling out the answer, “Moses!” They knew the reason that Jews eat Matzah during Passover and why G-d brought the 10 plagues to Pharoh’s Egypt. They understood how much the Jews wanted and their freedom from their Egyptian oppressors, and they also understood how there are many people who still yearn to be free today. On each of the 25 tables set up in the cafeteria, there was a “freedom seder plate” that my 6th and 3rd grader s helped me decorate. The plate was basically a white paper plate with a six empty circles surrounding a middle circle labeled “freedom.” The kids at the mini-seder were instructed to come up with symbols that remind them of freedom today. The adult at the table wrote six of their answers in the empty circles. I had the chance to go around to each table, and one spokeskid at each table shared their top choice with the whole group. Once again, my heart danced as I heard such thoughtful responses like: school, food, the American flag, books and shelter; and I had a good chuckle as one 9-year-old revealed that their table’s favorite symbol of freedom was, “Raising the minimum wage to $8/hour.”
But my personal, stand-out favorite was “Love.” The freedom to love freely is certainly a freedom not to be taken for granted and I love that these children realized this.
I felt so grateful to be able to spend the morning with 125 open-minded, bright 3rd and 4th graders who took in the story of Passover and transferred its meaning into their lives today.
This past weekend, I took my 9-year-old daughter to visit her 19-year-old sister at college for the first time. Soph was initially hesitant about having us because it was St. Patrick’s day weekend, which meant there would be lots of not-to-miss festivities—not appropriate for her mom and 3rd grade sister to attend. But this was the weekend that worked for us and I assured her that we would retire early and she could have her nights out with her friends. As our arrival date got closer, I could tell that Soph was truly looking forward to spending time with us. As hard as it is for college freshman to admit that they are sometimes lonesome, the truth is, they are…and then they’re not. But my motherly instinct told me that since Soph had chosen to go away with friends instead of coming home for her spring break, the time lapse between winter break and the end of her first year of college would be too long of a stretch to go without seeing each other (and I certainly knew it was too long for me).
I couldn’t wait to see my girl, my young adult, who made the transition to college look relatively seamless (which was not the case for me when she left for college). In addition to the joy I felt in seeing her, something took me by surprise during our weekend visit. It began the moment we walked in to the lobby where Soph was waiting for us. Soph looked at me and smiled big, and then I saw fireworks explode in her eyes as she laid eyes upon her “baby” sister. My two girls made an immediate B-line for each other and Jo literally leapt into her big sister’s open arms. They hugged each other tightly, for quite some time, and I could feel the connective, sisterly energy surge between them.
Sophie has been more than a big sister to Jo. She has nurtured her younger sister with the love and tenderness of a mother figure. Their ten-year age gap took the elements of jealousy and competition, so common amongst siblings, out of their relationship. Soph was secure with herself when Jo was born, and secure in her relationships with her parents and her brothers. Jo was a huge bonus to Soph—the sister she always wanted, her dream come true.
I watched how proud and happy Soph was when introducing her sister to all of her friends. “Oh my gosh, you guys look exactly alike,” her friends said, as they swooned over Jo. My girls both smiled.
After an entertaining dinner with Soph and some of her friends (of course I had to ask them to share “Sophie stories"), we headed back to her dorm. Talk of a sleepover began. As my girls tried to convince me to let Jo sleep with Soph in her dorm room, I have to admit, I felt a bit left out. But then it hit me. Soph chose not to head out with all her friends on the Friday night of St. Patty’s weekend, and was excited about sleeping next to her 9-year-old sister in her twin bed, in her cramped dorm room. (They declined my offer of spending the night with me in a nice, clean hotel room with two queen-sized beds).
As I walked out to my car to head to the hotel by myself, I was completely overwhelmed with gratitude for my daughters; for my relationship with each of them, the relationship that the three of us share, and the relationship between the two of them. I felt comfort in knowing that Jo will have Soph as a strong and solid role model to help guide and support her throughout her life, and that they will have each other long after I am gone.
All of my concerns about whether or not my daughters would be able to have a close relationship because of their age difference melted away. It became clear that the strength of their sisterly bond is not measured by the years or the distance that divides them, but the strength of their love and their commitment to each other.
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.
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."
I will not divulge which one of my kids this story pertains to save her from embarrassment. And for the sake of this story, I am going to refer to this child as my daughter, even though it could have been one of my sons. For those of you who know my kids, you can certainly try to guess which one had this experience.
My 8-year-old came home from her first year of sleep-away camp beaming with excitement and exploding with funny stories. Her two weeks in Wisconsin were filled with lots of new adventures and dozens of new friends. Not only was she excited to tell us all about her experiences, she couldn’t wait to show us all the pictures she took from the three disposable cameras we sent her with.
“Okay, honey, why don’t you give me the cameras so I can get the pictures developed and you can show us the photos of your new friends and all the fun stuff you did at camp,” I told her. She stared at me with a puzzled and borderline panicked look on her face. “What do you mean, give you the cameras,” she asked softly, her voice beginning to quiver. “Well, honey, I have to take the cameras to Target where they develop the film that is in the cameras, and that is how we get the pictures you took at camp," I explained to her.
Now the tears began to flow. “But you said they were DISPOSABLE cameras…so…I...threw them...away.”
Oh, my literal child…she did recover...eventually.