Nobody could have prepared me for this. Even when a cousin of my husband’s, upon finding out I was pregnant with my fourth child, commented to my husband and me, “You know, you can have sex without getting pregnant.” But even if Mr. Snarky would have tried to lay it all out for me, I would have been unable to comprehend the trajectory of my life with four kids spanning a decade. It would not have made sense to me, nor would it fit neatly in my brain. Because having four children with a large age span is not tidy. It is messy and complicated, exciting and surreal. It forces my brain to expand like a rubber band threatening to snap at any moment.
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...
I just finished reading your book The Self-Care Solution generously given to me by your mother-in-law.
You shared with the world the challenges you experienced not just as a mom but as a person trying to be the best you can be in an imperfect world.
Your suggestions for “self care” are reminders of how we can all be better advocates for ourselves and those we love.
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.
It's not easy to talk about eating disorders. There is shame associated with eating disorders. Though I've been recovered for 30 years, I still feel that sting of shame when I open up about the brutal disease that stole most of my teenage years. Nonetheless, I decided to say yes to an opportunity to speak at a recovery night at the Emily Program in St. Paul. Here I share my story and an excerpt from my 30-minute talk I gave to patients, family members of patients, and health care professionals.
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…
“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 get ready to leave the country tomorrow for a trip of a lifetime, I struggle to sort through all of the thoughts and emotions that race through my mind and heart— gratitude, excitement, hope and, of course, some anxiety. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of two journeys for me. The first is the opportunity to travel to Peru with Kim Valentini , founder of Smile Network International, two other women friends, and a team of doctors from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to assist 50 children with their cleft lip surgeries. These surgeries are completely funded by Smile Network. The patients and their families pay nothing, as they have nothing to pay. The surgeries will give these children a fighting chance—a chance to live “normal” lives instead of living as social outcasts. I will have the chance to meet the families of these children as we input all of their information into our computer system, and subsequently hold the babies and toddlers, change them into their surgical gowns, take them to the docs in the operating room, observe the surgeries, and return them to the arms of their loving families. I feel honored to be able to take part in Tikun Olam (Hebrew for "repairing the world"); to be able to give of myself and to know that I will be a part of something that will change lives. As much I know this work will enrich the lives of the 50 children and their families, I am certain that these experiences will significantly impact my life as well.
Ever since my daughter befriended Kim’s daughter at school ten years ago, and I heard about Kim’s work, I knew that I wanted to be a part of a Smile Network mission, but had a tough time finding the “right” time to go. This past spring, my husband and I attended a Smile Network benefit and sat at a table with Kim and a few other parents of our daughters’ friends. Kim took the stage and began auctioning off three mission trips. My husband’s arm immediately shot up. I looked at him with surprise and excitement as he continued to raise his hand until the trip was ours and he said to me, “You’ve dreamed of doing this trip for a long time. It’s time for you to go.” Within minutes, my two friends at our table both bid on mission trips as well, and we decided to venture off together, with Kim at the helm.
As soon as we began to talk about trip logistics, my nerves took over and I convinced myself that I needed do the “express” mission trip so I wouldn’t be away from my family for too long. My mom advised otherwise, “You can’t go to Peru and not see Machu Picchu,” she told me, as I explained that I was planning to skip the “sightseeing” part of this trip and just attend the mission portion. “You don’t know when or if you will ever go back there, and this is really something to see,” she said. “I just don’t think I can be away from the kids for almost two weeks,” I told her. “Yes, you can,” she stated clearly and convincingly, and promised she would help with the kids.
So began the second part of my journey—preparing to leave my family for 10 days.
To sum up this part of my journey, I will share a few prophetic messages from two of my children. This past Friday night, my son seemed upset about something but wouldn’t or couldn’t explain why he was acting crabby. “Honey, are you anxious about me leaving for Peru,” I asked him, thinking that my leaving must really be affecting him, and that I should definitely continue to bombard myself with guilt. With conviction and certainty in his voice, he shouted (which he doesn't do very often), “Mom, YOU are the only one feeling anxious about you leaving and you are making the rest of us CRAZY!”
The next day, I was texting with Sophie and telling her that I was feeling a little nervous about flying and being away from the kids. Her response was, “Mom, don’t be a baby.” She soon followed up with “You can do this. You are a strong, independent woman who can be away from her kids for 10 days.”
Okay, then. Out of the mouths of babes.
So, until the weekend after next, other than an “I love you and miss you” via skype or face time, I will not be involved in my kids' day-to-day lives. But as my son so articulately reminded me, this is way harder for me than it is for them. It is me who is afraid to leave.
I am afraid:
- to let go of control.
- that something bad will happen to me and I will have abandoned my children.
- that things won’t be done the way I do them and the kids will be upset.
- that things will slip through the cracks.
- that they will need me and I won’t be there for them.
As I finalize the countless details of the kids’ schedules, which are different each day for each kid, and I put the last articles of clothing in my suitcase, I realize that I am already feeling an internal shift. Heading to Peru tomorrow has made me realize that in order for me to be able to practice Tikum Olam, I have to release all of the above-mentioned fears and turn to TRUST—I need to trust that my kids will be well cared for and that they will be okay without me. I also need to trust that I will be okay, and that I will do the work I set out to do, find appreciation and joy throughout the journey, and then return home to my family.
I don’t know if this is the “right” time for me to go, or if there is ever a perfect time (probably not). But for me, the time is now. I pray that all will go smoothly, on the home front and in Peru. I am excited to take in the wonders of Machu Picchu and to comfort the children and their families before and after their surgeries. And I am extremely grateful for my community of supportive friends and family who will step in over the next few weeks to help take care of my children, and to my husband for giving me the push I needed to turn this dream into a reality. (And hey, Minnesota friends, if you happen to see a Burton kid wandering around looking lost, just point them toward my house, please.)
Adios, amigos! Hasta Lavista!
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.
I gotcha with the title didn’t I? Well, of course it is a bit misleading because we all know that there is no such thing as a perfect mother. However, I feel that in society today, where mothers are so brutally hard on themselves, moms need to realize a crucial component to feeling good about themselves as mothers. The focus needs to be taken off of striving to be a perfect mom. She does not exist. But mothers need to shift their focus to this idea: You are intrinsically the perfect person to mother your child/ren. Trust yourself and truly believe that you are the EXACT person your child needs to call “Mom.”
I am not big fan of the word perfect. In fact, it kind of scares me. Because I struggle with perfectionism, I usually shy away from using the word. But over the years, I found myself watching “perfect” moms around me. Moms who dressed their kids perfectly (how dare any kid have matching socks every day!), kept their houses in perfect order, and kept themselves impeccably dressed, and in perfect shape, with their nails done, skin glowing and hair shining—AND their kids were perfect too!
I now realize that I was doing that hazardous thing that so many of us women do because we are gluttons for punishment as we continue to compare our imperfect selves with the “perfect” mothers around us. “You are measuring your insides to someone else’s outsides,” a friend of mine said to me when I put myself down in relation to another mom. Even when a mom looks “perfect” on the outside, unless we really get to know her, we have no idea what her real, imperfect self looks or feels like. On the flip side, some moms are quick to elevate themselves and pass harsh judgments on other moms. “Sally’s son is really messed up. Sally must be doing a terrible job mothering him. What’s wrong with her?”
There may be nothing wrong with Sally, or Sally may be battling depression or trying to get out of a toxic relationship with her spouse. Where is the compassion? Remind yourself that Sally is the perfect mother for her child. (And if you are concerned about Sally's well-being, then reach out to her.) In an effort to find our sweet spot as a mother and as a supporter of other mothers, it is essential to turn judgment into compassion, toward yourself and toward the mothers in your life.
On the days when you feel like you have absolutely no idea what you are doing with your child, cannot seem to figure out a way to MAKE HER LISTEN, feel upset and frustrated with yourself and your child, and then (of course!) you look around and convince yourself that every other mom knows exactly what she is doing with her child/ren, remind yourself:
You are indeed the right person for the job because...
There is no other person in the world who:
- loves your child the way you do.
- understands your child the way you do.
- feels your child’s pain like you do.
- would die for your child like you would.
- becomes filled with nearly-lethal rage the way you do when someone wrongs your child.
- would allow her buttons to be repeatedly pushed by your child the way you do.
- loves and accepts your child without conditions like you do.
You truly are the perfect mother for your child.
I am obsessed with Anna Quindlen. I love how she thinks and I love how she writes. I have many favorite quotes from her but this Friday I would like to share this particular one that tops my list and one that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind: Anna Quindlen reveals her wisdom of hindsight in her essay “On Being a Mom:”
“…the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less. Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I'd done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That's what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.”
There is no getting around it, even though you may try to shield them from it, and find ways for them to avoid it, your kids will at some point have to face the dreaded agony of failure. For most moms, myself included, whether we admit it or not, when we see our children experiencing failure or disappointment, it feels like the sky is crashing down on both them and us. And sometimes, probably more often than not, we feel the pain even deeper than our children do. In most cases, our children bounce back from their disappointments relatively quickly, and yet we often stay stuck in them for way longer than we know is necessary or appropriate. Furthermore, many well-intentioned mothers, in an effort to try to “spare” their children from having to deal with failure, will go to borderline crazy lengths to assure that their child’s “fall from grace” will be cushioned or avoided all together.
Question to ponder:
What does it feel like to witness your child experience failure?
And even deeper:
Do you feel that your child’s failure a reflection on you as a mother?
Lately I have heard so many moms talk about their successes or failures of their children in a way that it is difficult to decipher who’s is who’s. I recently texted a friend to see how she was doing and she responded that her daughter made the varsity soccer team and her son had lost his tennis match. I wanted to respond, "But wait, I really wanted to know how YOU are doing!" Can we, as mothers, separate our identities from our children’s?
Before I go any further, I have to write a disclaimer: Anyone who knows me knows that I am as guilty as the next mom of allowing my entire being to be directly and significantly affected by what is happening (or not happening) in my children’s lives. I ride the crazy train with my kids and have a first class seat on that well know parenting helicopter that so many of us ride. I obsess about whether they will make a sports team, do well on their tests at school, be asked to a dance or be admitted to their college of choice. Having said that, I am actually working on this issue within myself right now, so I have become hyper-aware of my own hovering and somewhat controlling nature, as well as that of so many of the lovely moms in my life.
As I dissect this issue of mothers being somewhat unhealthily enmeshed in their children’s lives, I start with a seemingly simple, yet extremely complicated question: Why? Sometimes when my husband has reached his limit on listening to me go over and over and over my worries and concerns about a kid-related issue, he will just stop me dead in my tracks and say, “Why do you care so much? Maybe it would be good if you try to focus on something that you can control, or go do something for yourself instead of obsessing about an outcome over which you have ZERO control. You gotta stop worrying about the kids’ stuff. It’s theirs, not yours.”
Although there is a little sting to his directive, I know deep down that he is right (darn it!). He is encouraging me to give myself permission to let go. To trust that the chips will fall where they may for our four kids, and most importantly to trust that they will be ok, wherever their chips fall. And if their chips fall the “wrong” way, and they feel sad and defeated, then my husband and I will be there to love and support them, and to help them regain their footing so they can put their chips back on the table.
We moms have such a tough time with the letting go piece. From the moment we hold them in our arms as newborns, we are programmed to “make it all better” for our kids. We make it our life’s work to make life good and safe and happy for them. But thankfully, Wendy Mogel (Blessings of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B-) comes along and beautifully teaches us how kids must fail in order to grow. She explains that we are doing our children and ourselves a major disservice by not allowing them to experience failures and disappointments. When mothers don’t set clear boundaries with their children, and take on too much of their children’s “stuff,” they run the risk their children developing this line of thinking:
“I don’t really have to care, or feel anything about whether or not I make the team, make a bad decision, or get an A or a D on my test because my mom is taking it all on. Therefore, I am not even really accountable for my actions or inactions, because mom’s got me covered.”
Some moms, (myself included, on a few occasions), will actually not only take on their children’s successes or failures emotionally but will go a step further. They will intervene. They will call a coach, a teacher or an admissions director and threaten, question, manipulate, and even beg or bribe the person in the decision-making position to give their child what she “ABSOLUTELY DESERVES!!!” Okay, this is probably a good time for mom to step back, be very honest with herself, and figure out whether this is about her or about her child. This type of behavior sends an even scarier and potentially hazardous message to her child, which could sound like:
“You are not capable of accomplishing your goal/s on your own and therefore you need me to step in and take care of it for you.”
This deprives your child of learning the invaluable, character-building lessons that one learns from failing or falling short of a goal, with resiliency at the top of the list. It also could lead your child to feel that:
- “My mom does not believe in me enough to let me figure things out for myself. I must be inadequate.”
- “My mom cares more about whether I make the team or get the grade she expects me to get than she does about me as a person. She doesn’t love me for who I am, she loves me for what I do. Therefore if I come up short of her expectations, she won’t love me.”
Confession: My daughter got a B- on a paper her senior year. She is a fantastic writer and that was not a typical grade for her on any type of writing assignment. I am friendly with her teacher and when I saw him at her school one day, I said casually, “Hey, why did you give Sophie a B- on her last paper?” He stopped, looked at me straight in the eyes and said in a very serious tone, “Because I knew it was not her best work. She knows she can talk to me about it if she would like.”
Yikes! I cannot even begin to explain the scolding I received from my daughter when I crawled out of my shame hole a few days later and told her about it. “Mom! I wasn’t really bothered by it. It wasn’t my best work. I can’t believe you did that! Why would you do that?!”
With helicopter parents attending job interviews with their children http://huff.to/18cx1PG and micromanaging their every move, it is hard not to get sucked into thinking that being overly involved in your children’s lives is a way of showing your children that you care. It’s difficult to draw the line and know when it’s ok to advocate for your child, and when you need to bite your tongue and/or detach yourself from their “stuff.”
Next time you want to step in and try to prevent your child from failing or facing disappointment, take a moment to sort out your own feelings, and ask yourself:
What am I afraid of?
“Don’t cry because it’s over, be happy that it happened,” my older son preached to me nearly every time he saw me for weeks after my daughter left for college. Even if my eyes weren’t filled with tears (I really tried to cry privately), he could see that there was sadness and loss that I was feeling deep from within. “She’s gone but she’s not GONE,” was the message my brain kept sending to my heart. I talked to many moms who forged this trail before me; who sent their children off to that never-never land place they call college. I heard, “It feels like someone died, like you are in mourning. You walk into their room and just weep. You kind of wander around in a fog for a while. But it does get better with time. And then when they come home again, it reminds you that it was definitely time for them to go.” I also heard, “I was so happy for my daughter and felt like I did my job in raising her. Now she’s off doing what she is supposed to be doing and that makes me feel good.”
I would put myself right smack dab in the middle of those two sentiments.
It has been exactly one month since I left her in that Ann Arbor parking lot across the street from her dorm and I am just now able to write down how it feels to launch a child. Although, ironically, I recently heard author Wendy Mogel speak and I had a chance to chat with her briefly. “I just launched my first child,“ I told her. “Did she graduate from high school or college,” she asked as she signed my copy of her recent book, Blessings of a B- (fantastic read, by the way). “High school,” I said with a questioning smile. “She’s not launched,” she said with such authority that it took me aback. She recommended a book called “Letting Go” by Karen Levin Coburn http://amzn.to/16VPYnG , which talks about the various stages your child goes through when in college, some of which can be very difficult as your child is trying to navigate the world as a young adult. I wasn’t sure if hearing this from Dr. Mogel made me feel any better or worse.
When doing research for my book, I interviewed many moms about the process of letting go. Some of my favorite responses include:
“The letting go process is sort of like walking off a cliff and praying you land safely! Or, letting a bird fly free, hoping it travels in the right direction. This is what we have all worked so hard for, to let our kids go, experience life...we just pray we gave them the foundation they need to be successful on their own terms. Sometimes it is very hard to parent while on the sidelines of college. Issues can be tough. Just remember you did the best job possible to get your kids where they are and hopefully they will take it the rest of the way—and they need to.” (Mother of three children, ages 23, 20, and 17, married 27 years)
“They always see you and need you in some sort of Mommy capacity. It's the hugest relationship of their life, whether they realize it or not. So smile and give the independence and try to keep the advice in the solicited category, but also feel free to smirk a bit when they still need you, which they will. And realize they may still act like a baby around you sometimes. You are their safe place.” (Mother of three children, ages 19, 15 and 7, married 20 years)
“I don’t really think you ever really let go. It’s reorganization. It’s just a different way of thinking about things and shelving things. The worries…I do think they become bigger in some ways. You are not worried that they are going to get hit on the playground but you worry for their safety out in the world. You hope that you are still the voice inside their head that guides them when they are making decisions.” (Mother of three children, 21, 19, and 17, married 22 years)
As for me, I am still somewhat raw with emotion and yet, am finding my way to embrace the letting go process, which, in my opinion, cannot be rushed. I just recently stopped automatically pulling out six placemats when I set the table for dinner. I still find myself wandering around the grocery store, feeling a little lost as my daughter was the one with the STRONGEST opinions about what food MUST be in the pantry and in the refrigerator, and what she would and wouldn’t eat for dinner. I just booked her ticket to come home for fall break and when searching for flights, I habitually typed in round trip from Minneapolis to Detroit. After a few minutes, I stopped in my tracks and stared at the screen. “She is not traveling from Minneapolis, she lives in Michigan,” I had to remind myself. I also caught myself saying to a friend when she asked if I could go for a walk on a recent Sunday, “Well, Soph will be home studying, so I can leave the younger kids home with her.” And I finally re-patterned my brain to stop thinking that she was going to walk through the door when I heard the chime that goes off every time a door in our house is opened.
Letting her go was indeed very painful for me. Moreso than I thought it would be. My acupuncturist suggested that there should be a ritual for moms when their child leaves the nest. Moms need time and space to allow themselves to deal with the separation. They need not be immediately thrust back into life and almost shamed for feeling sadness and loss. They are almost expected to shake off any sadness and to feel overjoyed that they have a kid in college. “She’s super happy, right? She’s doing great, right? Aren’t you sooooo happy for her,” wonderfully good-intentioned people would ask. Yep, she is and I am. Yet, I was sad too. For as much as I knew it was time for her to go, the reality of her leaving knocked me off balance…for a while.
People say that it takes about a month to regain your stability, and this was right on for me. Time has truly been a blessing, and I can now say that I have transitioned to a new normal. And it feels good. With the support of family and friends, I am now able to say without crying (most of the time), “My daughter is away at college.” My family is happy and adjusted at home, and Sophie and I have figured out our mother-daughter long distance rhythm via text, face time, email and phone calls. I try to give her space and she tries to connect when she has time. It works...for now.
I realize that there will be many more transitions that I will go through with her, and with the other three kids, but this one was momentous for me, and I am grateful to be on the other side of it.
I did cry (a lot) because it was over, HOWEVER, I am eternally grateful and overjoyed that it happened…And, in a slightly different configuration…continues to happen.
My doctor told me that she was worried that my baby had stopped growing in utero at 37 weeks. She told me she wanted to do a C-section ASAP. She was due on May 15th. but on April 29th, my forth child, my second baby girl came into this world at 5 pounds 4 ounces, just 9 ounces lighter than her big sister weighed at full term almost 10 years years prior. Had she stopped growing or was she right on course to be the exact same size as her sister and me (I was another heavyweight at 5 pounds 14 ounces, full term)? We will never know but the fear that something was wrong with her made the 48 hours we waited before she was born almost unbearable. Thankfully, she was born healthy, and without any complications for her or for me. I only tell this story of her beginnings because I have found myself going back there over the years and wondering if her being brought into this world before she was “ready” has to do with a decision we made for her 8 years later.
My baby girl was and is very much the baby—the baby of our family of six, the baby of my parents’ six grandchildren and the baby in a long, long line of sibling-like first cousins’ children on my husband’s side. My daughter would be the baby of 20 cousins in that lineage. Needless to say, her feet hardly touched the ground for the first several years of her life, long after she was able to walk on her own. She didn’t have to speak a whole lot because everyone around her loved to cater to her every potential need before she needed to express one. And the fact that she literally was the size of an American Girl doll for a very long time (and is still not a whole lot bigger), and her voice was so high and squeaky that it made you smile no matter what she said, did not make it easy for people around her to transition to treating her like a “big girl.”
When it was time for her to go to preschool, she went somewhat willingly but often cried that she wanted to stay home with me. She was sick a lot; colds, fevers, ear infections, influenza, and countless unexplained tummy aches. But she learned and thrived in school; she made friends and she seemed happy and well adjusted.
When we considered moving her from the Montessori school she attended to the private school where my older three children attended, I remember feeling somewhat nervous. I knew she was bright, but she was often shy, reserved and somewhat “young” for her age. The first time through the admissions process, the school told us that she was not ready for the academic, social or emotional rigors of first grade at this college preparatory school. They did, however, offer her a spot in the Kindergarten class. We declined and decided to send her to the Montessori school that she loved for another year and re-assess the following year. She had a great year socially and academically and her teachers thought she would do fine in the grade she was “supposed” to be in. So, back to the private school we went to test her for admittance to second grade for the following school year.
Academically, she did just fine, and her classroom visit went relatively smoothly. We would have to wait to hear from the school about their final recommendations. The following day, after dropping my son off at school, I ran into the teacher whose classroom my daughter had visited. I asked her to tell me honesty how she saw my daughter fitting into this grade. She explained, “Your daughter was fine in my class, but I have to tell you that I had to take several of the kids out in the hall because I heard them whispering behind her back saying, ‘Why is a preschooler visiting our class?’ They couldn’t believe that she was 7, the same age as they were.” The teacher explained that the kids perceived her as much younger and treated her as less of a peer and more as someone who needed caretaking.
After much agonizing and deliberation on my part (my husband had much more clarity about the benefits of holding her back and the school had no question that giving her extra time would be hugely beneficial to her in every way), we all came to the consensus that it would serve her best to start as a first grader the following year instead of as a second grader, which is where her birthday says she “should” be.
But I worried. I worried that she would be teased for being older than most kids in her grade (in some cases more than a year older). That kids will ask her if she was held back, and will ask her why. I worried that it would seem strange that she will be 19 when she graduates high school and I even worried that her fellow college freshmen would give her a hard time for starting college at 19 and ask her if she flunked a grade. I worried about how she will navigate all of this, if it would bother her and how she will normalize her situation. I also had to look at how I felt about it all and find a way to reconcile all of this within myself. I also dabbled with some self doubt: Was it my fault that she needed extra time? Did I coddle her too much? Was I so overwhelmed with four kids that I neglected to help foster some of the developmental tools she needed early on?
But I realized that I had to let most of the above-mentioned insecure babble go so I could fully support her and empower her. I needed to find acceptance with the decision to give my daughter an extra year and look at all the benefits of this decision. “You are giving her the gift of time,” is what many trusted friends who work in academia labeled it for me. One extra year to be a kid! (And as I am preparing to send my oldest to college in a week, I certainly have a much better understanding of this!)
Fast forward two years to this week as my daughter is getting ready to start 3rd grade. “Mom, I know I am not the oldest kid in my grade because there is a boy who is older than me, right,” my daughter asks. “Right,” I say not quite sure where she is going with this. “Do you think there will be any other kids starting in my grade that will be older than me,” she continues her line of questioning. “I don’t know for sure but probably not,” I answer her carefully. “O.k. good. Because I love being the oldest. I also love being the smallest, which I will be this year because my friend Susie, who is a little bit smaller than me is not coming back this year.” “So you like being the oldest?” I ask. “I love it!” she says with a smile.
I can say now that I do feel that my daughter is in a good place and that giving her extra time is really what she needed and needs. Whether this has to do with how she came into this world, a bit premature, or how she was a bit coddled when she was young, we will never know. She is not in a hurry to grow up and that is okay. She sees her older siblings and how much more challenging and complicated life becomes. She is good with being a kid. And for me, I will get to have an extra year with her before my nest will be completely empty…but by then, I may be making room for grandchildren (if I am lucky)!
I think it is safe to say that most writers/bloggers live in a state of vulnerability. The process of writing and sharing your musings with others sometimes feels like you are walking down the street stark naked. Furthermore, writing and blogging about your children as well as your innermost thoughts, feelings, doubts and uncertainties about yourself as a mother, takes this feeling of vulnerability and sends it through the roof. The stories that mothers share about how wonderful, cute, funny, ironic and brilliant their children feel good to write, and for the most part, to read (unless there is bragging all over it!). But the stories that reveal the ugly truths about your children and/or you as a parent are difficult to write, to share and often difficult to read. My recent blog post on teenage angst was featured on Mamapedia. As I read through the comments on the site, I was struck by one comment in particular. A mother of two grown children wrote,
“Sometimes I really feel that, as parents, we get what we expect to get. Why ‘terrible twos’? Why ‘difficult teens’? I believe that if you start from a place of UNCONDITIONAL love, MUTUAL respect and open communication (and are willing to be humble and say ‘sorry’ to your child if you've made a mistake) there's no reason to have to ‘suffer’ through any stage in our children's development.”
Immediately I felt like I had to defend myself. I wanted to call her and say, “But I was just venting! My teenagers are awesome and I am great mom and I DO LOVE MY KIDS UNCONDITIONALLY!! I just chose not write about that this time!”
I do believe my kids are wonderful human beings, and sometimes I write about all their goodness, and the glory I feel in being their mom. But sometimes I don’t. I feel that I have a responsibility as “Unscripted Mom” to reveal some of my innermost struggles as a mother and to explain how some of my children’s struggles and behaviors blips have affected both them and me. I do this in an effort to process some of my feelings but also to help other moms who may be feeling the exact same way to know that they are not alone.
I do not need to reveal intimate details of my children’s lives. I need to respect and honor them through my writing. But for me to divulge that my two oldest children’s teen years have been somewhat difficult for me need not be shameful. There has to be room and space to discuss this. To translate my admission that there have been times when my kids have disrespected me and that I feel a sense of calm having them away from home this summer to mean that I don’t love them unconditionally...well, that is certainly a stretch.
There is a fine line between venting about the frustrations you feel parenting your children and saying that you are “suffering” through their various rough spots. The truth is that your child may encounter a bump in the road and take his frustrations out on you. As much as you talk about and demand mutual respect during these times, sometimes there is a learning curve—for them and for you. And as you both ride the curve, there may be a certain amount of “suffering” that does occur. When you love your child desperately and see her struggle and/or act out, there is virtually no escape from feeling some kind of pain.
I don’t know a love that doesn’t involve a certain amount of suffering.
Are the twos “terrible?” Some days, yes, and many days, not at all. To admit the “terribleness,” does not mean that you love your children less than a mom who says, “My two-year-old is an angel, and even when she throws herself on the floor in the middle of the grocery store, I think she is absolutely, delightful and fabulous and I love being her mother every single screaming second.” It is probably safe to say that most mothers who write and read about motherhood love their children more than they have ever loved another human being. We are all conscientious parents and want to raise good kids. However, despite sharing the same goal, none of us will have the same journey with our children. Some parents’ and some children’s journeys will be more bumpy than others. But how one describes the level of difficulty in raising their children has zero correlation to how much love one feels toward her children.
I did/do experience some angst raising my teenagers, and they also experience angst being teenagers. I have enjoyed a little break from this angst as they have been away this summer. But do I love them more than anything in the world? Yes. Do I miss them terribly? Yes. Are they great kids? Yes. Do I wonder if it is my fault that there is this angst? Sometimes. Have I ever apologized to my kids for making a mistake? Probably too often. Do I work my ass off every day to be the best mother I can possibly be? Yes. Have I had to look deep into my soul to try to discover why I cannot connect with my teens sometimes, why they disrespect me sometimes, and why I have tolerated it sometimes? Yes. Have I found answers? Some.
Do you want to judge me for admitting that being a mom is not always easy for me? For admitting that sometimes a break from them feels good? For the fact that my kids are sometimes edgy and combative? This is entirely up to you but please know that I have made it my life’s work not to judge you, and to provide you with my motherhood truths in an effort to foster a safe, nonjudgmental place where mothers can be sounding boards for one another. Hope you’ll join me.
It has been about four weeks since my two teenagers left for their summer adventures (one as a camp counselor and one as a student in Israel), and about two weeks since we met my daughter at her college orientation. Over these past few weeks, I have literally have felt my blood pressure drop and my whole being exhale. The anxiety level in my house and within me has decreased significantly, and I have come to a crystal clear realization:
Raising teenagers is really f-ing hard.
As absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also allows the mind to gain some perspective. I do miss my 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. I miss their wit, humor and companionship. However, I realize that there are several elements of their teenage-hood that I don’t miss…at all:
- The backtalk and the continual second-guessing of my rules and “demands.”
- The battle to get their attention because of their incessant need to be connected with their friends via their cell phone or computer.
- The worry about them driving, making good choices and staying safe (which doesn’t really ever go away, even when they are hundreds or thousands of miles away).
- The late nights spent waiting to hear them (please g-d) open the door and come up the stairs to my room to let me know they are home safely and to give me the forced hug so I can do a quick smell test.
- THE MESS!!! The laundry, dishes, orange juice containers left out on the counter, trail of clothes, papers, shoes, baseball gloves, purses, water bottles that just cannot seem to get picked up on a timely basis.
- And the final, but most prominent element—their ATTITUDE, which is summed up, for pretty much all teenagers, in five simple words: “You”… “Just”…“Don’t”… “Get”...“It”… In other words, they feel that we parents know nothing; were never teenagers and could not possibly understand what they are going through; are annoying, pretty much all the time; and if we would stop asking so many questions, imposing so many rules, and just get out of their way!!! everything would be just fine!
A dad friend of mine who takes my yoga class told me today that his teens have been relatively easy. They are focused, kind, respectful and great to be around. Several thoughts and feelings emerged for me, including, “Have I done something terribly wrong with my kids? How did he and his wife make this happen? O.k., I still have two more, maybe it will be easier with them.” It is not that my teens aren’t great kids, thankfully they are, and I wouldn’t change a thing about their feistiness and passion for life. There are plenty of moments where I do sit back and sing their praises and feel gratitude for how they are turning into fantastic young adults. HOWEVER, I will not deny that my journey with my teens has been far from easy, and that their transitions from childhood to young adulthood have included many, many bumps over the past several years (for them and for me). Furthermore, I have learned a lot about myself and the baggage that I carry from my own adolescence and teen years, which I needed to deal with to in an effort to effectively parent my teens.
Furthermore, for the record, I must say that I do not think that any parent goes unscathed during their children’s teen years. I think my yoga friend is in the minority because most of the parents I talk with feel like they are in the trenches with their teens—battling it out and often feeling defeated and confused. It is during those deflated and confused times that I find myself questioning whether or not I have the strength and the know-how to do what it takes to guide my current teens and teens to-be through these tumultuous years. However, as I am gearing up to launch my oldest teen out of the nest next month, I do know now that despite the challenges, which will undoubtedly arise, I am capable of digging up every tool that I have in my growing tool box of strategies and coping mechanisms, and muddle through the teen years with each one of my children.
But for right now, I am truly appreciating the respite from the teenage battleground, which has provided me with the time and space to realize all that I have learned from my two beloved teenage warriors. Furthermore, this time has allowed me to enjoy extra time with my 11- and 9-year-olds, who are delighted to have first dibs on my attention, and appreciate the calmness in the house and within me.
“No one knows his true character until he has run out of gas, purchased something on an installment plan and raised an adolescent.” – humorist Marcelene Cox