You take the good, you take the bad . . .

Ice cream date with Maddie and Parker.

Ice cream date with Maddie and Parker.

This is the last week of summer for our family. The kids start back to school on Monday, and on Wednesday I'm helping Maddie drive her new-to-her car up to BYU. It's been a good summer in many ways -- but there has also been a good deal of heaviness. There have been hospital stays, and deaths, and bad news, and heartbreak all around us these past months, which makes me anxious and panicky. I know these sorrows have always circled, but normally I'm better at pretending they don't exist. The pretending bit gets hard when it's RIGHT IN YOUR FACE.

On the other side of the equation, there have been beautiful, joyful moments this summer. There has been midnight laughter from the kids upstairs, beautiful sunrises as we drive to Crossfit, the complete feeling of having Maddie home again. There have been fun dinners in The Heights, farmer's market breakfasts, that feeling of warmth as the gulf coast breeze washes over you when you step from the ultra air conditioning of the supermarket. Last night all of our kids (except Jordan, of course) piled on our bed and did their best to pick on one another. It was so annoying and so comforting -- all at the same time.

Maybe it comes with age -- this living with joy and sadness all intertwined. It seems that in my 20s I bull-dozed through life, knocking aside what I didn't like, greedily claiming those things I thought would make me happy. But now, as my babes leave the nest one by one, I'm more circumspect about my joy -- more careful to savor the everyday pieces of happy that come my way. And still, more prone to worry in the night that tragedy is lurking in every corner.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the schedule of the new school year will set me right. I do like extreme order. But also, a little good luck and peaceful vibes wouldn't hurt either. Here's to new beginnings, soft words of encouragement, and a year of kindness. Goodness knows we all need it.

Bad parenting . . . no one said it would be easy

            Young Mother Sewing , Mary Cassatt, 1900

            Young Mother Sewing, Mary Cassatt, 1900

Over the break we had a bit of a . . . um . . . situation. More of a 'moment.' A moment wherein I found myself flustered, and frustrated, and honestly with no idea of my correct parenting move. At the time I thought a polling of Nest & Launch readers might help me out of my predicament, but, sadly, parenting choices rarely wait long enough for proper discussion, polling, and consensus gathering.

Here's the low down. And, by the way, this is a real-life, actually-happened scenario. Names have not been changed to protect the 'innocent' (and by innocent, I mean me):

Our family had a planned activity scheduled for a Friday night. Yes, it was a church activity. But our whole family was going (even Madison, who was home from college). And it had been planned some time in advance. Did you get that? It was planned. In advance.

Two or three days before the activity Becca received an invitation from a good friend to a birthday celebration. I don't know why I was initially flummoxed. As I type this I see I should have been very matter-of-fact: "Sorry babe, we have family plans." But I wasn't. I was sort of wishy-washy. I encouraged Becca to see if her friend could change the date. I hemmed and hawed. And as a result, Friday morning rolled around and I still hadn't "handled" the situation. In passing I mentioned the conflict to Sterling, who off-handedly said Becca should make her own decision, and then he headed out the door for work.

Oh, yeah. She's 16. She should make her own decision. And that made my part easy. I wouldn't have to disappoint my baby girl. I wouldn't have to lay down the hammer, so to speak. So I told Becca she could decide.

Becca is a wiser-than-average teenager. When I offered her the choose-your-own-adventure option she replied, "Well, that means I really don't have a choice."

And me? Being the open and progressive parent that I often fancy myself? I explained, "Of course you do. You can choose. But you'll also have to live with the consequences. Maybe those consequences are that I'll be very disappointed. I guess you'd have to be prepared to deal with that."

So. She contemplated her choice for approximately three minutes and then announced, "Okay. I've decided. I'm going to the party."


And even though I thought I wanted her to make her own choice, I suddenly realized that I didn't.

So I did what any red-blooded, teen-ravaged parent would do. I applied guilt. I laid it on really nice and thick.

Nope. She still chose the party.

So I thought some more . . . until I worked myself into a near frenzy wherein I announced (in the heat of passion) that she had somehow NOT made her choice in an adult manner (I can't remember my exact reasoning now -- but it was ridiculous). And then I said something along the lines of, "WHEN YOU ARE 18 AND LIVING ON YOUR OWN YOU CAN MAKE YOUR OWN CHOICES, BUT FOR RIGHT NOW I'M GOING TO HELP YOU MAKE THE RIGHT ONES."

And then Becca, feeling the injustice of the entire planet fall upon her head, retreated to her room in tears.

I stood there on the cold kitchen tile, alone, surveying the bacon grease hardening in the skillet, and reflected back over my EXTREMELY POOR PARENTING DECISIONS. What I'd wanted was an easy-way out, and instead, I'd backed myself into a very tiny, poorly-lit, cobweb-filled, stinky-cheese-smelling CORNER.

Has this ever happened to you? Please. Someone. Commiserate with me for heaven's sake.

So, I did the only thing I could think of at the time. I ATE CHOCOLATE.

Just kidding. What I really did was apologize. I told Becca that I was so, so sorry. That I had made a terrible parenting decision and then tried to fix that by making her the bad guy. I told her that I had not clearly thought through the "make your own choice" series of events, that I was not prepared to let her make that choice, and that I was, again, very sorry I'd put her in that position. I then explained that despite having already parented two teen girls, I was really a neophyte, who needed lots of help, love, and carbs. I told her that my philosophy is to keep pointing her in the right direction, guiding her choices, and that I would (eventually) step back and cheer her on in whatever she chose. And then I said lots of other hopefully funny and comforting things to let her know that I would only make a complete fool of myself over someone I loved utterly and completely.

And you know what? She gracefully accepted my apology, wiped her eyes, and cheerfully went on with her day. We arranged for her to join the party after our family activity and peace was restored to the kingdom.

And that, my friends, is a cautionary tale. Don't hand out free agency unless you can BACK IT UP. Also, don't be a wimp. 



Mobile therapy

Sometimes to distract myself from the fact that I'm exercising, I listen to a podcast. (My thighs are so gullible! They fall for it every time.) A month or two ago, I listened to an On Being episode with the always fabulous host, Krista Tippett, interviewing Dr. Sylvia Boorstein (who is part wise Jewish grandmother, part therapist, part Buddhist teacher). She had some insightful comments that really resonated with me about reacting and responding as parents on those tough days and moments. 

photo: Massimo Dutti

photo: Massimo Dutti

On always being a mother, even when your kids have grown:
Dr. Boorstein:
I tell people — I tell people that I could have the most profound equanimity and I am two words away from losing it completely. Then they say, "What are those two words?" I'd say, "Well, you have to understand that first the phone has to ring. Ring, ring and you pick up the phone and a voice says, "Hello, Ma?" and [if] it doesn't sound right.

. . .

Wise effort and the difference between "Can I care?" vs. "Am I pleased?" (though she talks about younger children in the example below, I think it applies well to older kids, too)
Ms. Tippett:
 Let's talk about this core insight that suffering — and, again, we're acknowledging that parenting is the greatest loss of control we ever suffer — that suffering results from struggling with what is beyond my control, that idea that our minds get in conflict with our experience and that's where suffering comes from, not so much from the realities themselves, but how we struggle with them. How do you think that applies to this?

Dr. Boorstein: Well, I just remembered actually just before we came out here this evening. I was sitting backstage and I remembered I was on a flight last Friday, and there was a family of five traveling with me. And everything is progressing well; it wasn't a terribly long flight. Near the end of the flight, the two- or three-year-old, she just fell asleep and now she's awakened and it's late in the afternoon. Probably her naptime is way off. She not only woke up, but she woke up and she's beside herself and crying and flailing in the way of three-year-olds. I watched these two parents and they were fabulous. Her mother was completely just consoling, quietly talking to her, not losing her equanimity at all. I was marveling at it. I thought it was wonderful.

You know, sometimes you see much more upset parents. This parent was not upset. Then by and by after a little while, the dad over here said, "Pass her to me." So they changed children. She passed this one back to him. And then he — behind me — spoke to her in such a kindly way, and slowly, slowly she pulled herself together. I just so admired their parenting skills. I admired it because, first of all, the child calmed herself down. They didn't whiz themselves up and create more suffering for themselves. They also didn't create more suffering for the whole plane because, you know, sometimes when a child is getting upset and the parent becomes all upset, then you feel pulled into it.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Boorstein: But somehow these parents' equanimity was like a calming effect around the whole plane. And I thought well they were really — at the time, I thought they were really good parents. But I thought the element of their goodness was that they're acting very wise, and that the wisdom involved is this child is two and a half and that's what two-and-a-half-year-olds do [ed: or, in our cases, 12- or 16-year-olds] when they're awakened from a nap in the middle of a loud and rumbling landing.

Ms. Tippett: You know, that's also an illustration of a distinction you made when you talk about wise effort. I found this really helpful. I feel like that's a story about it. You said in terms of our reactions, that there's a big difference in any moment between asking, "Am I pleased?" Which of course, on an airplane and you have a screaming child, you're not pleased. You're embarrassed. You think you will be less disruptive if you can make them quiet. But the difference is between asking, "Am I pleased?" or in this moment, "Am I able to care?"--

Dr. Boorstein: Yeah. For the child and for myself in a kindly way.

. . .

On being kind to ourselves
Dr. Boorstein: 
I was thinking about the GPS in my car. It never gets annoyed at me. If I make a mistake, it says, "Recalculating." And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back. I thought to myself, you know, I should write a book and call it "Recalculating" because I think that that's what we're doing all the time.

That something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad...Indignation is tremendously seductive...So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of you said before, wise effort to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There's a fork in the road here. I could become indignant, I could flame up this flame of negativity or I could say, "Recalculating." I'll just go back here.

. . .

Maybe it was just the timing in my life but this was like a bolt-of-lightning, lightbulb moment pep talk for me!  What do you think of her words of advice? 
p.s. Any other podcasts recommendations to distract my gullible muscles?

If you're interested in hearing more, listening to the edited or full interview is well worth the time. Or you can watch it here

Some days are hard

A triptych of memories, circa 2008:

Lauren chose 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, the last day of February break, to bring us the sheet of paper.

Modigliani's Woman with Red Hair

Modigliani's Woman with Red Hair

"I'm supposed to have a conversation with you."

Distracted by Jon Stewart's Oscar banter, I faintly register her request but fail to respond.
"Like, by tomorrow. It's due tomorrow in Health."
"Okay...let me see what it is."

The form lists five questions that students are supposed to discuss with parents about sex and birth control: How should teenagers show affection for each other? Should a couple have sex if they love each other and are going to get married? If a teen is sexually active, what kind of birth control should she use? Etcetera.

This is not the conversation I want to have, on demand, on Oscar night at 9:30. Keep in mind we have had nine unscheduled, unhurried days of vacation before this. I sigh.

"I already know the answers to most of these. We've talked about this before" she says hopefully. "Maybe we don't need to talk about it and you can just sign the sheet."
This is true, although we haven't explicitly discussed birth control. I imagine a pregnant child, blaming her parents' cluelessness: They couldn't be bothered. The Oscars were on.

So we talk, our glances not quite meeting for most of it. One commercial break, Greg screamingly silent on the other sofa.
As she heads for bed, she says "don't worry, I'm not planning on doing anything like this anytime soon."

Silence in the wake of her departure.

Greg asks, "Did she say 'not anytime soon'? Because I was hoping to hear 'not planning on anything like this ever'." I'm just thinking why didn't I turn off the t.v. and spend a little more time? What's so difficult about that?

. . .

Most of my interactions with Sam are still instrumental.

Bruegel's Child's Games

Bruegel's Child's Games

Where are my church shoes? What are we having for dinner? Will you help me with this song? Will you play a game with me? Comb my hair? Check my homework?

These things I can do, can check off as positive indicators for the parenting balance sheet.

Although yesterday, when he hollered up from the kitchen "Can you cut my bagel for me?" I admit I actually weighed the probability of a lacerated palm (if I had him try it himself) versus a few more peaceful moments of reading before I replied a delayed "okay." Even the simple things are hard some days, their grinding dailiness overpowering my ability to rise to the occasion.

. . .

I wake up to a small sound at midnight, my Miss Clavell-like mother sensors detecting something is not right. There it is again--a soft sniffle, a low moan. Is someone crying? I shuffle into the hallway, blurry from the scant hour of sleep and still half in my dream.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo's Pieta

Maddy is crying--a soft, forlorn sob that breaks my heart.

I scoot her over a bit to make room for myself under the covers of her twin bed. I fit my legs into the angle of hers {and note fleetingly how her legs have stretched longer in the last few months} and wrap my arms around her. She spills out her worries and disappointments that have been building under her cheerful 12-year-old exterior. Loneliness, jealousy, fear, nostalgia already for her simpler elementary school days, friend troubles, sister troubles, dashed expectations for the glorious experiences she thought would be hers at 12--these are all soured by their proximity to each other and by the late dark lonely hour.

There was a time when my midnight ministrations were easier, when, blurry eyed, I could provide milk and nearness and that was enough to satisfy her nighttime needs. Now my role isn't resolving or satisfying but simply witnessing & waiting while she resolves for herself.

Yep. Some days are hard. While Nest & Launch is mostly about emphasizing the enjoying part of life with big kids and teens, we also want to be clear: some days are just breathtakingly, bone-achingly hard. We won't dwell there but we won't shy away from that reality either. Two-year-old tantrums somehow seem cuter than 13-year-old ones. Big kid problems--hey, even just the moments of basic mid-stage parenting--feel more personal and seem to carry higher stakes.  I get that. 

Looking back on that week in 2008, I want to put my arm around that anxious, melancholy Annie and say, "Breathe, sweetheart. Lighten up on yourself. And them. It'll pass. That's the bitter and the sweet news of all this. It'll pass." 

Yesterday Cathy Zielske talked about the challenging parts of parenting teens.  Now it's your turn: What challenges do you find unique to mid-stage parenthood? What would you tell the five-years-ago version of yourself now that you know what you know?