Monday, July 14, 2014

The summer of my discontent

My apologies to Shakespeare. Like everyone else in the Midwest, I had survived one of the bleakest, coldest winters on record, and was more than ready for the lazy, hazy days of summer. What I've come to realize, however, is that the summers I remember of old are gone, for lack of a better word. And I should have appreciated them more while I had them.

Case in point. It's nearly mid-July, and my body is nearly as pasty-white as it was four months ago. Years ago, as soon as we hit the first sunny, 70 degree day, I was sprawled out on a beach chair somewhere, trying to get that first burn that I knew from experience would turn to a deep, rich brown. But two things have gotten in the way: first, my intelligence. I only have to look in the mirror to know that with every ray that hits my body, new wrinkles are forming faster than I can say "pass the sunscreen."

And speaking of sunscreen, the threat of skin cancer has instilled the fear of God in me, as new moles pop up daily and cause me to have my dermatologist on speed dial. I can't even manage to stay up on my "bronze glow lotion" regimen, which would garner me a few compliments on my sun-kissed appearance, until their gaze fell to my feet, where the orange streaks caused by not quite rubbing it in adequately would give me away.

With that lack of bronze, I have a new enemy: shorts. I remember asking my mom when she was probably about my age why she NEVER wore shorts. "It's 90 degrees, Mom! How can you wear those capri pants?" Now I get it. The first summer solstice snapshot of me sporting shorts was enough to cause me to throw them all into storage until that magical time when my thighs would no longer look like the wrinkled outsides of an old orange. A pale, old orange. And on the 8th day, God created Bermudas. For people just like me.

And summer isn't summer when you have teenagers. I never thought I'd be envious of those younger moms posting pictures of themselves with their kids at a) the water park, b) the playground, c) the zoo, d) on a bike ride, e) you get the picture. The closest I've gotten to summer bonding with my son was an hour one Sunday at mini-golf, which I tried to spread out into an afternoon with a bribe for ice cream. "Nah," he said. "I'm gonna go over to my friend's house." Boooooo.

Here's a tally of my summer bucket list:

Water parks attended - 0
Pools splashed in - 0
Bike rides ridden - 0
Picnics picnicked - 0
Water guns squirted - 0
Water balloons thrown - 0
Slip 'n Slides slipped on - 0
Fireflies caught - 0

Wah, wahhhhhh. With my vacation time eaten up with other obligations, it's hard to find the time for even a summer getaway. Shit, I can't even muster a staycation, let alone a vacation. I keep hoping I can swing a fun-filled, whirlwind weekend in to St. Louis, but with school starting on August ungodlyearlyth, I'm not even sure if I can make that happen. For sure I'll have to sweeten the pot by letting him invite a friend. Because otherwise, it'd be, like, boring, right?

I miss my summer, when the kids were younger (did I just say that?) and the days were filled with wet bathing suits and towels draped over patio chairs, the happy screams of kids running around the neighborhood as the sun set, and an abundance of Popsicle stuffed in my freezer. I miss feeling that "good tired" from spending the day at the pool and that warm glow that comes from being out in the sun all day. Now summer just seems like another season where I leave work for lunch and wish I had put more thought into a teaching career where I could have these three months off.

"Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity."

Sigh. Shakespeare must've been in his 40s and with teenagers when he wrote that.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

50 is the new 40

I really thought I'd be pretty jazzed about this time in my life. My mom once told me - which I repeated, well, repeatedly, that her 40s were the "best decade of her life." She may have been in her 50s when she told me that so maybe her 50s were sucking, or she had no idea that her 60s would rock the way they did, and of course, we all know now that her 70s started out OK but finished like utter Crap She Didn't Deserve. 

But I digress. I didn't mind turning 40. I literally felt a layer of skin I like to call my "Give A Shit Epidermis" shed from my body like a fleece coat on a warm day. Which didn't necessarily mean I didn't give a shit anymore. I did. I do. But I just felt less badly about feeling bad about how I acted or felt. If you're in your 40s, perhaps you're picking up what I'm putting down here.

Me and my 40+ wrinkles.
Anyhoo, well, the whole Awesome 40 thing has kinda backfired. Maybe I thought I was ready for what this decade would bring, or maybe I was just a smidge too optimistic. Which is weird. Because "optimistic" isn't really a word anyone has ever used to describe me. Nor are words like "sunny," "perky," or "bubbly."

So I'm wondering what exactly has made my 40s not live up to its hype. What did I think was going to happen in this Decade of My Dreams? Well, I assumed (yes, I know what happens when you assume) that because of my new found lack of "Give a Shit Epidermis" that I would suddenly be OK with everything going on around me. More comfortable in my new skin, if you will. And in some respects I have. Taking charge in my job with more confidence, knowing that my experience and "worldliness" makes me feel less of that "girl in the corner why is she talking during this meeting" and more of "wow what that lady over on the other side of the table said really actually makes sense." That's nice.

But then there's the "hmmmm... I'm in my 40s - LATE 40s if you will - and still not really seeing where this career thing is going... and, well, yeah, not really 'livin' the dream' financially either." When does that comfort kick in? Or is that just the price you pay for living in the economy we live in, where the rich get richer and the rest of us just kind of always flounder? Sometimes I get tired of floundering. Not that I want to be rich. I just thought by this age I'd at least not have so much to worry about in that arena. But I'm smart, and I'm savvy. And sometimes I look at it as kind of a fun challenge - to see how I can get a little more water from that rock, sometimes in unexpected ways. (No, I don't pole dance. Relax.)

Then there's that kid thing. Not that I expected teenagers to necessarily be "easy," but I figured by this time they'd be engaged in a zillion activities with a ton of friends and my house would be one of those like on the TV commercial where the boys run in all muddy from playing football and the mom laughs and grabs a shit-ton of pizza rolls out of the freezer and they all sit around feeding them to each other.

That commercial is so not true. What the hell.

Suffice to say, I didn't see this year coming and all the changes that ensued and continue to ensue. There aren't a ton of activities or friends, and there are no pizza rolls in the freezer. None. I'm kind of in this parental limbo where I'm not really needed for the day-to-day-care-and-feeding but my presence as support and supervisor on an on-call basis is required. Which basically means I don't make a lot of plans. A family outing that "sounds fun" at the time can be quickly trumped by a call from a friend to go to a water park or some other way better place. A night of movies and games quickly becomes blanket and a book time for mom when a last-minute sleepover request occurs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining, per se. I'm glad my kids have social lives, and friends, and things to do. Again, I just feel as if I need to be here when I need to be here, and I'm not always sure when that is. So making my own life and plans outside of theirs is a little, shall we say, capricious.

Maybe this is my mid-life crisis. Maybe this is where I say, "OK - I 'gave up' XX years of my life for everyone else now it's my turn" but honestly, even if I did have a turn I'm not sure what I'd do. I love to say I'd "Write that Book" or "Freelance for that Travel Magazine" or "Learn to Tap Dance." I don't really know if I'd do any of those things. (I'm 80% sure I'd cop out on the tap dancing.)

Maybe my 50s will be it. I've always been a late bloomer. Maybe my mom was right and I'm just, as I've always been, a little behind. Maybe my 50s will be the decade my career will really take off, both from a personal satisfaction standpoint as well as financial. My young, responsible teen will virtually have his own life and my older teen will be finding his and call me for advice and to tell me about his incredible adventures and what an awesome job I did as a mom to get him where he is today, blah, blah.

Oh and after a long day of Doing What I Love and Talking to My Awesome Kids I'll settle down to a glass of wine and scintillating conversation with my (back in shape lean and muscular) legs resting comfortably on the lap of This Awesome Guy I met who supports everything I do and thinks I'm amazing and in turn is AS amazing. Not in any hurry for that one, mind you. It'll happen.

God I can hardly WAIT for 50.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

10 Things I Wish I Knew 16 Years Ago

A former co-worker and someone whom I admire just became a father for the first time. The father of a son.

As I read his posts and viewed the amazing first-life photos of his tiny bundle of joy via this oh so impersonal window into our personal lives called Facebook, I felt a sense of protection. Not for this tiny human being - no, I knew he'd be well taken care of. The protectiveness I felt was for his father and mother.

So I use this outlet to share with them not pearls of wisdom, not nuggets of my two cents worth per se, but perhaps just some maternal musings of  a stubborn, close-minded woman who has stumbled and staggered through the last 16 years attempting to raise one of two of the greatest gifts God has ever bestowed upon me: a son.

As with any "unsolicited advice," take what you need and leave the rest. But here are a few things I wish I had been more acutely aware of over the past decade and a half, and what I am trying to better incorporate as I "try to do better" with Boy #2.

So for what it's worth, here goes.

1. You may know this, but it will still hit you at times. Your life will never be the same. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, at times you'll find yourself waxing nostalgic for those moments when you weren't thinking about an extension of yourself for whom you are 100% responsible. It can be overwhelming when you're thinking you'll "go out for the night just like old times." It won't be. Don't expect it to be. Just enjoy the moment for what it is now and trust that he is in good hands and this is your time to reconnect with your spouse, your friends, or family.

2. Along those same lines, don't forget about yourself. Don't worry, my next line isn't going to be "sleep when the baby sleeps." That's bullshit. However, doing things for you that don't involve your little anklebiter is critical to your emotional and physical well being. It's not easy. You'll feel selfish. But you'll be a better parent, trust me. There is no medal at the end of the day for being that martyr parent who thinks that they have to spend every waking (and sleeping) moment with their innocent and completely vulnerable child. There's only complete and utter exhaustion and maybe, just maybe, a tiny bit of resentment.

3. Don't forget about the other half of your dynamic duo. I say this because I did forget, even though on the eve of my wedding day, two years before my son was born, my mother wrote me a letter and told me point blank to put my husband before my children. "Sure, OK," I thought. After my son was born, I scoffed, "Was she serious? He can take care of himself!" He sure can - and he is, because now we're divorced. I became a mom and ceased to become a wife. Treat each other kindly and thoughtfully, and when you're standing there with your poopy progeny screaming at your wife to grab another box of wipes, take a moment and look at yourselves. And laugh. Because you're not only parents, you're partners. And you're in this together, for better or for worse.

4. I know I don't have to tell the new dad to whom I'm writing, because he's light years ahead of me on this one. And for those of you who are "spiritual, not religious" or don't hold the same beliefs, don't think this is me pushing my stuff on you. Again, this is me spouting what I personally wish I would have done better. That said, Proverbs 22:6. "Train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old he will not depart from it." Now, you can trust that, but there's no guarantee. The best you can do is integrate your Christian ways into his life from an early age and make it as important and vital part of him as breathing and eating. I didn't have the capacity to do this, and I wish I could have. I tried, but I often felt like a first-time runner at a marathon: struggling along at the back of the pack and very spiritually out of shape. What I will share with you is what I shared with both my boys, and that is, "I want you to know how to talk to God, because one day you will feel very, very alone. It is at that time and all the other times I want you to know in your heart that you are NOT alone, and that you always have Him, even in your darkest hours."

5. Remember at the beginning of this where I said, "take what you need and leave the rest"? The same goes for your parenting handbook, aka "how my parents did it." Regardless of whether you consider them the most awesome parents in the world you want to emulate or the most horrible and you'll do anything not to be like them, don't expect to raise your son like you were raised. First of all, these are different times. Initially I thought that was a lame excuse, but it's not. Even my mother said she recognizes that parenting is tougher than it used to be. And it was tough back then. Second, your child is not you. You can't parent a child the way you were parented, because he is not you. That may not make much sense now, but you'll see it later. I promise. Again, take pieces/parts that are already ingrained in you - the whole morals/values thing. But the rest? You may have to do that on the fly.

6. Speaking of doing things on the fly, remember every time before children when you had to make a difficult decision? It was tough, sure. But deep down in your gut or your heart or the pit of your stomach you kind of knew that answer, didn't you? Guess what. For the first time, situations will arise where all your organs will fail you. There will be no "right answer." For the first time, you will absolutely, positively not know what the "right thing to do" is. That, I suspect, is where faith comes in. Did I mention you'll need a lot of it? And down the line, you'll look back and think, "Why did I make that decision?" The only answer is, "I did what I thought was the right thing at that time." And leave it at that.

7. Validate, validate, validate. I say this as a parent of a strong-willed child, but I also say it because I neglected to do it. Again, this goes back to "I'm doing this like my parents did it because it seemed to work just fine because I'm OK, right?" When your child is sad, don't have the first thing come out of your mouth be to tell him not to be sad. When he's angry, don't tell him to stop being angry. When he's frustrated, again, don't try to take that away from him right away. Respect him. Yes, respect your child. Respect him enough to validate how he's feeling instead of telling him NOT to feel. That may seem too touchy-feely for some. Our sons are supposed to suck it up, right? I can tell you with confidence that this tactic will backfire for you and for them later in life, somewhere down the line. Validating emotions first lets your child know, "Hey, I hear you. I empathize." And there's nothing wrong with that. Now, how does this translate to a full-blown tantrum in the grocery store? Well, telling him to "knock it off" probably isn't going to work. But I'm not talking about how you get that behavior to stop. I'm talking big picture - the practice of validating his feelings will be remembered long after the conniption in the checkout line is over.

8. This is perhaps the hardest to stomach and the most difficult to implement. Let him struggle. Let him be disappointed. Let him fail. I can't stress this enough, but let me tell you this, and it will make sense. Scientists studied caterpillars as they emerged from their cocoons. One group left the caterpillars their own instinctive devices; the other group they assisted in shedding their chrysalis. What they found was that those they helped were unable to fly. Let that sit for a minute, and realize that every time you "fix" something for your son, you are impeding his ability to fly. And trust me - he is going to need to know how to fly.

9. Recently, someone whom I greatly respect gave me some advice. I took it very much to heart, and now I'm passing it along. And I'm putting it in quotes because I can't take credit for it. "Ask yourself what you can do to make God love you more (or less, for that matter.) If you don't know, the answer is NOTHING. Then ask yourself what your child can do to make you love him more (or less). Make sure you tell your son that there is NOTHING he can do to make you love him any more or less. Let him know that you understand that this concept may not make sense to him until he loves someone (spouse, child) more than himself, but that the time will come when your words will become crystal clear to him. TELL HIM that whether his life is good, bad, productive, unproductive ... there is NOTHING he can or cannot do, say, think to make God or you love him any more or less. Period." And that's all I have to say about that.

10. This last nugget is something I'm still working on, and that is: give yourself a break.  There will come a time when your son will do something or make a choice that will make you think, "What the hell did I do wrong?" This may keep you up at night, and you could obsess over it to the point where it overshadows all the good parenting you've done. At some point, you'll have to separate what he does as a reflection of your parenting and what he does as a reflection of himself. Because he is and will always be - NOT YOU. He will be HIM, making his own decisions and choices, sometimes using all those morals and values and blood, sweat and tears you put into him, and sometimes not. And if the latter happens, you may realize that you don't necessarily have to forgive HIM for that. You have to forgive YOURSELF. Because (reference above,) you'll always love him. Unconditionally. But you may not always feel that way about yourself. 

Maybe you don't get all these now. Maybe they won't apply to you. Maybe it's too early to talk to a new parent about forgiveness and validation of feelings and letting your child struggle. But someday, maybe, you'll be in one of these situations and you'll hear me in your ear, whispering, "Number Three. Number Seven. Number Ten." And if that happens and you can shift your thinking a bit to the benefit of your relationship with your precious child, then it was worth it for me to write it. 

Blessings to you and your new son. You have entered a journey in which there is no end, and I can assure you that you'll never want it any other way. I can say with definitiveness that my two sons are unequivocally my greatest accomplishment in life, and an ongoing lesson in what unconditional love means. Welcome to the Club.