Parenting at my age and theirs

Although lovely in many respects, this summer was an interesting one for me, surprising and hard in ways that I neither anticipated nor welcomed. I believe that difficulty is often a sign that one’s current course should be reconsidered, altered, and/or learned from. That said, challenging times sometimes come when you’re not remotely interested in reconsidering, adjusting the sails, or learning new techniques. And yet we must stay dynamic, for life and those around us surely do.

I wrote earlier that it was a real limp to the finish getting the boys to camp. Once home, relaxation did not wash over me like a fragrant and refreshing breeze. Rather, I felt anxious, had trouble sleeping, and generally found it hard to settle.

Initially, I tried to keep busy not least because I love feeling productive, but also because, in honesty, busyness makes it harder to sit and ponder what isn’t quite right, what isn’t quite working. I taught myself to repair wood trim, puttying, sanding, smoothing, painting, and reveling in the way much of the wainscoting and trim in our house took to the refurbishing. In general, I feel that new coats of paint on your walls and mulch in your yard are like the best red lipstick out there; they finish the picture and make it shine. But there is also something satisfying about learning to do things instead of paying for another to do them; self-sufficiency feels good.

Tom and I gutted our laundry room and then redid it, hanging new cabinets, repairing and painting the walls, reconnecting the plumbing after the new counter and our old sink were reinstalled. That, too, felt good. Useful. A lovely way to spend time together during a summer we couldn’t travel so instead stayed here.

But in the background, I considered the busyness and the relative inability to relax. I realized I didn’t much know what relaxing even meant anymore. For thirteen years I’ve been on the parenting hamster wheel. I’ve loved a whole lot of it, but the day-to-day relentlessness of raising and guiding kids, ferrying them, keeping their appointments and cooking for them, managing the household and the pets and the volunteer work and the yard and and and. All that alters our courses more than we know, even when we try to maintain selves.

For me, both out of intentional and loving input and without realizing a thing, my mother-son dyads turned my sails out of my wind. There are many reasons for this, and I assess no blame. But I do see this summer as a come to jesus with myself, and that’s a good thing.

The week before we picked the boys up, I started thinking hard about what I needed to do to build in time for self care while parenting. The kids are 10 and 13; they’re not toddlers, they’re not incompetent. They spend six weeks a year in a place without electricity or running water, a place in which every single day they have to make multiple decisions, about how to spend their time and how to be as people. Do archery? Go on an extended hiking trip? Assert their feelings or stay quiet? Join with friends or do what their inner voices are suggesting?

That is them learning to be. And as they forge paths like those, I need to be doing the same, relearning what it is to live meaningfully and wholly with the kids here so that when they’re not, life is still full and balanced and not a fatigued mess of catch up and question.

One of my oldest, dearest friends is also a really good mother from whom I’ve picked up not a few insightful tidbits about parenting. She mentioned something about a chore jar, a bucket of popsicle sticks with a chore on each from which her children pull a job every morning. I stole this idea immediately upon learning about it and made a jar specific to my crew. Some are silly like “Have a dance party to a crazy song” while others are serious such as “do the dishes” or “clean the litter boxes.” Since their first morning home, the kids have pulled a stick and done the chore. Jack and I have taken two great selfies (with real smiles), Oliver has learned how to do a load of laundry, both have organized their desks and played with and brushed the cats. Both dreaded cleaning the litter boxes, but this is not my problem and Jack got over it quickly (Ol has yet to pull that one).

And what I have found, as with so many things related to parenting, consistent, non-negotiable rules, like the chore jar and our longstanding No-Screen Monday, make whining and push back much (!) less likely.

Over the summer, we also had reading hour every single day. That was as much because they had required summer reading and book club work as the fact that I desperately wanted to read through the stack of great books that beckon on the regular. And so we sat together and read, and it was nice. And not negotiable.

Some might say that of course these things should have been happening already, and maybe that’s right. But while I have kids who like to read, it’s never their first choice. And while I’ve always asked for help from them, I’m sick of needling and reminding. The set reading hour and daily pull from the chore jar cut the crap completely, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

We have never given the boys an allowance, in large part because they get a decent amount of birthday and Christmas money from generous grandparents and aunts but also because I don’t feel that making your bed or helping at home necessarily warrants payment. That’s a family decision, and I’m not judging allowances; I grew up getting one, and it taught me a lot.

But my boys tend towards laziness and they live privileged lives, so I’ve decided that the money they have beyond gifts will have to be earned. Several years ago, Tom and I told them they had to earn all spending money for trips we took them on. What they have chosen to purchase since then has been infinitely more thoughtful and frugal than before. And now, as Jack enters his teen years and wants things like more Magic cards and what not (which I’m not buying), he decided to start a lawn business in our neighborhood and has done a great job. He’s learning what it really takes to earn $10 and the thought that needs to go behind purchases when your budget is limited. He’s learning to correspond professionally and to keep track of appointments, and because of his income, he now has a bank account and knows how to deposit, withdraw, and all that jazz. I love it. It is beyond compare to watch from behind as he asks the guys at Dice City if he can see a specific Magic card, decides to buy it, pulls out his wallet, makes change, and says thanks.

This guidance towards and enforcement of independence allows for space for me. It will allow me to search for ways to make meaning in my life that are just for me even if they involve others. I’m teaching myself Irish and, impossibly and yet actually, I am taking two literature classes at Politics & Prose (my favorite local bookstore) on four Friday afternoons in late October/early November. The logistics of making that happen were ridiculous: class from 3:30-5:30 and 6-8p on Fridays? That is right smack in the afternoon frenzy of carpool, weekend commencement, dinner, sleepovers, etc. But instead of missing this chance as I have so often before, I registered and then figured out how to make it work. I am excited for myself and also for what this models for the boys. I am Mom but I am also Emily.

Benedict, great article on parenthood and (many) thoughts on it

After watching the final episode of this season's Sherlock last night (how three episodes constitutes a "season" is beyond me. And no, I don't much care that each is 90 minutes; I still wish for more because I'm borderline obsessed), I was fully set to write a fan club tribute about Benedict Cumberbatch today. Seriously, though it pains me to say this because such a teen crush at my age is slightly embarrassing, I could be his club president. He is SO talented and sexy. I haven't "felt this strongly" about a celebrity stranger since Jani Lane, lead singer of Warrant, circa 1989. I taped a cut out, glossy magazine photo of him on my childhood wall and slept next to him for years. Truth be told, his looks were terribly 1980s and didn't come through the era well at all. Additionally, he died of alcohol poisoning back in 2004. I believe my adoration of Benedict* shows how significantly my taste has evolved. See pictorial comparison below for proof. Jani Lane

Em crush of 1989 - 1993, give or take ↖

Benedict Cumberbatch

Em crush, present day ↑

Yet I woke up on the hormonal migraine, grumptastic side of the bed this morning and really have never recovered, not least because cold rain prompted a two-hour school start delay. This winter and the generally hyperbolic, overwrought, hand-wringing responses to it in my area (D.C.) have led me to wonder if all peoples purported to live north of Boston are really a lie being foisted upon us all. I mean if we cannot handle cold rain, how could anyone live in more severe climes?? Surely no one in Buffalo! Saskatchewan! Siberia! could possibly remain alive in temperatures that near the terrifying zero mark.

Are snow plows and warm parkas and salt and heated interiors really such pitiful counterspells to cold precipitation? I grew up in Louisiana for god's sakes, and I feel perfectly confident driving on chilled roads. Has a plague of winter anxiety swept over us like an amnesiac ether? Snow, sleet and cold aren't new, for the love. People have handled these climatic challenges for millennia. I mean seriously, hasn't the postal service taken enormous pride**, for decades!, in their determination to deliver mail despite rain, snow, heat and gloom of night?

All this to say that my ode on Benedict just didn't flow this morning. An ode on a crush must come from a happy place, not a dour, sour one.

As such, change of subject.

Do you read New York Magazine? I've been a subscriber for years; the mag is excellent journalism, a weekly crossword and highbrow gossip at their best. I can hardly think of a better evening than a freshly delivered NY Mag, pen and glass of wine by my side. Yes, I do my crosswords in pen, and I am extraordinarily protective of them too; ask T or J. They tried to participate the other night before I'd even had a thorough once-over, and I nearly locked the 'zine in Fort Knox to keep them away. If I get stumped, only then might I seek consultation.

Two weeks ago, the cover article was "The Problem with Teenagers is Their Parents" by Jennifer Senior, one of my favorite journalists. She has recently published a book entitled, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, which I look forward to reading. Additionally, she will be presenting it tomorrow night, 7pm, at DC's own Politics & Prose bookstore; I intend to go, but damnit, you just never know.

Anyway, I found the article totally absorbing and thought-provoking despite the absence of teens in my house. The primary thesis is that while teenage adolescence really rocks some kids' worlds, for the most part, it's the parents who struggle and are beset by anxiety, not their teens:

"Is it possible that adolescence has a bigger impact on adults than it does on kids?"

The arguments made, by Senior and a number of experts whom she interviewed, include the perhaps unsurprising notion that as kids need less from their parents, their parents feel hurt, displaced and somewhat lost; the "who am I" question forced upon adults as the kids who've been the centers of their worlds pull away and mature. As the parents (mostly moms) wrestle with these feelings, they try to hold on even more tightly. It's not hard to see how attempts at growing up and out in dissonant concert with attempts to cling and remain important could yield fraught relationships.

Another point clearly presented is that adolescence might be rougher on parents because their child's burgeoning independence illumines the absence of other things -a job, interests, hobbies- in one or both of the parents' lives, "exposing what's fulfilling about it and what is not." Though raising younger children can also make people question how to parent and in what manner (staying at home, seeking help, continuing to work full time, etc), Senior suggests that teenagers force us to think of these issues in different, intensely acute ways.

This might by why so many parents struggle mightily with empty-nest syndrome when their children head off to college. When their foci are gone, it makes sense to me that parents would then reflect on the years spent raising them, considering what was sacrificed to do so, weighing whether or not the things given up or delayed were worth it, thinking "What now?" Surely many parents feel satisfied but as surely there are others who feel bereft at the time in their own lives they've lost, or at least the parts of their own identities they neglected to tend.

It seemed to me that my mother had a very difficult time adjusting after my sister and I left. I remember her once calling me at college, in tears in the milk aisle, bawling because, since my sister didn't drink milk, she no longer needed to purchase gallons. I remember wishing I could hug her through the phone. Once my sister left, Mom did return to graduate school, get a masters degree and teach, but she also still feels that life is only at its best when we are all together. While I love how much she loves us and our nuclear family, I do admit to hoping that I don't feel as she does. That I do, rather, feel the way I think I will which is that I did my job well, I loved it, but I'm damn thrilled to be in my renaissance. To have time to deeply explore and live in a way that I simply can't right now. To welcome my children home, always and happily, but not pine for them and their regular presence in my house.

Though I can't know now, it feels that I will definitely not miss some of the more inane elements of child-rearing. I can already say with near certainty that when I no longer have to encourage and manage excellent tooth brushing, clean bums and eating with utensils, I will be thrilled. I suspect that when I don't have to try so damn hard to simply be a person (as distinct from Mom), to maintain my identity and interests in stolen, nonlinear moments chock full of interruptions, I will feel less scattered; I believe there will be a deep happiness there.

This is not to say that I'm not happy now, but my experience of motherhood is that it sits on the fulcrum of fulfillment and desperation. That has been unexpected and is a hard place to perch, day after day, year after year. Every day brings new demands to improvise, teach, support, struggle, fail, feel terribly confused and utterly alone. Simultaneously, every day brings the joy of your child learning something new; the pride in watching him shake hands and say thank you, just like you've taught and reminded him so many times before; the unfiltered, no holds barred hugs and kisses that will, at some point, become things of the past.

I know that I will weep for those moments in the future, as I swim in the nostalgia of memory. But I also hope that the efforts I've made and continue to make to be a woman, friend, wife and individual will sustain me in deep and happy ways when my children are grown. The thought of feeling utterly unmoored at that time is terrifying and serves as a terrific motivation to keep current with myself, to make time for me, my marriage, my friends and my interests. Does this mean that at times I make a choice to value those things more than my kids? In a way, it does. They are always primary in my thoughts, yet I believe the adage, "a happy mom is a happy home," is truer than its platitudinous phrasing sounds.

To me it means not only that if I'm happy I have more happy energy to share but also that I am modeling for my boys all that a mother/woman can be, deserves to be, should be respected for being. If my sons marry, have kids and are not the primary parent, they should know that if their partner (woman or man) takes on that role, it is not to the exclusion of his/her self. It is in addition to. So I feel I need to model that. To show that even though I am here, always and intensely, I am also more than that. I have needs, limits, desires, and interests in addition to and well beyond them.

What I get tangled up in sometimes is the difference between who I was before kids and who I am now. Then, I was well-educated, well-traveled, social, happy and dying to be a wife and mom. Because I hadn't found a career about which I was truly passionate, I looked to marriage and motherhood both because I wanted those things but also because I thought they would be the answer. That because they would need what I wanted to give, they would be the source of peace and satisfaction for which I'd long searched.

Once I had Jack, however, I started to become my truest self, a self that is still well-educated, well-traveled (though now slightly less so, damnit), social (though with less energy), happy and dying to also explore the passions I didn't know I had. The timing feels shitty at times, and negotiating the two poles is rather a conundrum. But without my sons, would I be this woman? I think not and so I am indebted and grateful and thrilled. But it's not easy.

To bring it back to Senior's article, I guess I would again say that I hope my experience as the mom of adolescents is different than the women she interviewed and the many out there like them. No judgment there, just hope. I see myself as mother as a way-station of the most serious sort. I was gifted with incredible, unformed beings, and it is my privilege and most serious duty to raise them well, thoughtfully and with every ounce of love and strength and energy I have. But it doesn't stop there. No, my privilege includes sending them out into the world, to make it a better place, to touch others' lives the way they have mine, to make their own mark on this world. Because of that perspective, I feel it would be a disservice to them, my husband and myself if I didn't keep anything for me, didn't tend to myself along the way. I don't want to have worked this hard for that long to then feel bewildered by or unexcited about the time left before me.

Food for thought, friends.

*Puritanical thinkers out there, rest assured that my husband knows of and is comfortable with my damn celebrity crush. **"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." is inscribed on the wall of a NYC post office and is often invoked with pride. That said, the postal service has no official creed or motto.