Parenting 201

parenting201

It’s official, I now have four teenaged children. I have completed Parenting 101 in the unofficial course book, where I was the director of my children (unfortunately my grade won’t be in for a couple of decades, but I think I passed.) I am now enrolled in the more advanced Parenting 201. I have become more of a supervisor than a director, allowing my children to become more independent as they learn to navigate the world from the safety of home base. Instead of identifying the goal and telling them the steps to get there, now they know the goal but they have more freedom to determine the path to achieve it. Just as they are learning new skills and flexing their decision making muscles, I have learned a few things too as I move through the ranks of my children.

My eldest will turn twenty in April. He is away at college where he is “undecided” in his major while being very “decided” about his fraternity participation. While this imbalance causes me slight agitation, I take comfort that we share the same goal of graduation and employment so I am confident in his ability to get there. I keep myself in check and don’t nag him even if he doesn’t do things exactly how I might. He is well aware of his many friends who came to college with specific majors; he has his own stress about deciding what his focus will be. I don’t need to pile on to his stress so I choose instead to be supportive and helpful when asked. A consultant, if you will.

Number Two son is a whole other ball of wax. He has a genetic disease which affects his health and intellectual/emotional rigor. He recently became 18 so we obtained guardianship in order to help him make decisions that are in his best interest. I try hard to encourage him to think for himself and be as independent as possible. We recently made the decision to keep him in our county school system until he is 21 so he can continue to gain skills that will help him become employed. Fortunately he is extremely pleasant and sweet; he trusts my husband and I completely to help him plan his future. If I think about it too much I am overwhelmed with this responsibility but my husband and I plug along, including him in our thinking and planning as appropriate. It is hard for many kids to visualize their futures, whether they have typical needs or special needs. As parents we just have to use the right approach to help them as they ease across the threshold to adulthood.

My third teenager will be 16 next month. He is learning how to drive and settling into his high school studying habits. One thing that I’ve learned is that occasionally a supervisor has to step in and take a more hands on role. He has some acne like one of his older brothers; I was a compliant mother of the dermatology patient with my older son, trying less invasive treatments which where only marginally successful. With this son I knew to be an aggressive advocate and start the big guns early – a 6 month oral medication, with monthly lab draws. When I told big brother what we were doing, he gave me a little gift of validation by telling me, “I regret not doing that.” My 15 year old was unaware of this option and would have lived with bad acne had I not acted. I didn’t want him to regret not having done something about it. Let him get on the therapist’s couch for something else I will screw up.  Whether it has to do with my parenting or not, he is confident and resilient, demonstrated by running for a youth group board position recently after losing two times previously. My protective mother instinct thought, “Why risk losing again?” Good thing I didn’t interject my concerns, as he won. I do not micromanage my kids’ lives. It’s their life, not mine.

The final teen is my baby girl who is 13. She has not turned into a surly adolescent yet. She is a solid student and a dancer. She has her own fashion sense, which I respect, and only weigh in on things like age-appropriateness and modesty. She pushes back a little but is mostly respectful of my input. She is fearful of things she finds “creepy,” like some odd neighbors who recently moved away and our new President. She recently asked to be excused from the dinner table when we were discussing the upcoming Inauguration as it causes her to feel anxious. While I can shield her from too much information, I want her to be informed enough, feel empowered to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and be her own advocate for things she feels strongly about.

I may not like every decision my kids make but I tell them I am always their number one fan. I find myself missing my mother, who died three years ago. I wonder how she managed our teen years. Thankfully I have my husband, sister and girlfriends to discuss the trials and tribulations of raising teenagers. They provide a non-judgmental sounding board off of which I can bounce my stories and concerns.

After the teenage years I have the dating and marriage fun to look forward to – Parenting 301 – clearly a graduate level course.

 

 

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Oh, and Another Thing

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I married at 31 and started having babies when I was 33. By the time I was 38, we had three bouncing boys. I was getting older, tired and cranky, nearing 40 and seriously contemplated closing down the baby factory. Lo and behold, I was pregnant again.

Once we cleared the genetic screening hoops (our second son has a serious genetic disease), we anxiously awaited the arrival of our fourth, and final, child. We opted not to find out the gender of any of our children. We enjoyed the surprise when they were born. Even with the last child, I didn’t find out the gender because 1) I wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret, 2) if it were a boy, people would say, “oh, too bad,” before the poor guy was even born, and 3) while I knew too well how important a healthy baby was, regardless of the sex, I loved the idea of a little girl.

Miracle of miracles, I had a healthy little girl who is 12 now and just one of our crew. She is not the princess or the revered baby. She’s just #4. Okay, she twirls a lot more than her brothers, but you get the point.

Occasionally I feel a little bad that my daughter has an old mother, although I don’t think she thinks of me that way. I’m just her mom. Having lost my own wonderful mother a few years ago when I was 50, I feel a sense of wanting to impart all my wisdom to my daughter since she most likely will not have a mom for as long as I did. I was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, and while I am ostensibly cured, healthy and hoping to live a long life, one never knows what the future holds. I have to bite my tongue and subliminally drop my wisdom bombs. I don’t want her to remember me and think, “My mom was always cramming me with information because she was an old mom who worried about dying.”

I’m older than many of her friends’ moms, but that doesn’t bother me. I may not be as fun as younger moms who have more energy but I was never really that get-on -the floor-and-play-with-your-kids mom anyway.

Here are some things I want her to know:

  1. Read a recipe completely, BEFORE you start cooking.
  2. It’s worth it to pay more for a bra to have a salesperson who knows what they’re doing.
  3. When you order anything online, unless you really need it immediately always pick the regular shipping option – it usually comes just as fast.
  4. Be nice to everyone. If you happen to be popular, you want to be known as the really nice girl, not the mean girl.
  5. Don’t flatter yourself and think people care what you do. They have their own lives to worry about. Even if something happens in your life that makes you the news of the day, you will quickly be knocked down on the news-feed of life.
  6. Love yourself and your body. Everyone has things they wish were different about their body. Play to your strengths. I’m sorry you have bunions already at 12 years old. It’s part of the bad genes I passed on to you. Be thankful it’s your feet that you think are ugly and not your face.
  7. Don’t be a sheep and blindly follow others. Stick to your beliefs and values.
  8. When you have a house, put some lights on timers inside so it looks like people are inside. We were once burgled as a young couple when our house was completely dark, inside and out. Duh.
  9. Don’t be a doormat, to friends or a partner. Have relationships that are authentic and reciprocal.
  10. Don’t talk on your cell phone when in line at a store. It is rude to those around you and especially to the clerk. People don’t like to feel invisible. Smile at everyone.
  11. Have a schedule but be flexible, with yourself and with your children.
  12. Be grateful and express gratitude for what you have. Don’t whine about what you don’t have.
  13. Dress, speak, and act modestly. Be mindful of how you present and carry yourself. It speaks volumes about your character.
  14. Never “reply all” to an email unless it is specifically requested. No need to share the minutiae of replies. If you have to send an email to a large group, use the “bcc” so others can’t “reply all” either.
  15. Honor your father and your mother. Make sure I’m well cared for when I’m old. Two words – chin hairs.

I am aware of the opposite sides of the life cycle that we are on. My daughter is a young, budding teenager with beautiful, taut skin and boundless energy. I, on the other hand, am on the downhill slope which is full of lumps, bumps, wrinkles and if I’m lucky the occasional naps. We learn from each other’s different personalities and experiences, as even this old mom can learn new tricks. I will continue to quietly add to my wisdom list, teaching her with my words and through my actions.

Since my mother died, I often wonder “what would Mom do?” I can usually summon the answer. I hope my daughter will be able to do the same.

The Upside of Peer Pressure

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I have one daughter who came along after three boys. None of my children have been particularly sporty in the traditional way. A couple of them did the obligatory baseball, soccer and basketball teams which were fun for a while, until they weren’t. Our kids swam on our neighborhood swim team for several years, which I loved even if they didn’t. They weren’t particularly talented swimmers but I liked that they were on the same team, with boys and girls and kids of all ages.

My daughter has resisted sports of any kind, besides dance, and doesn’t feel especially competent or confident when playing sports in P.E. at school. I secretly wished that one of my kids would show some interest and ability in a sport. The grass just always looks greener on the other side, and I know that sports have a multitude of well-documented benefits.

Spring was approaching and my daughter, now 12, is in middle school. I breezily suggested she might like to try track. Who knows, I told her, you might be good at it and like it. A vehement, “I don’t want to do track Mom,” accompanied by an eye roll was her reply. Oh well, I tried.

A week later she came home from school and announced that she and her friends were going to run track.

“Really? What a great idea,” I sarcastically thought inside my head. Clearly, peer pressure is more compelling than mom pressure.

Experts say facing the influence of friends represents an important developmental step for teens on their way to becoming independent-thinking adults. While it can coax kids into unhealthy behavior like drinking or speeding, it can also lead to engagement in more useful social behaviors such as studying or training harder in a sport. Apparently both peer pressure and learning to resist it are important developmental steps to self-reliance.

Peer pressure lessens as we age, but adults still feel it. I took up running as an adult because my sister was doing it. She had joined a running group and seemed to be having so much fun, so I joined too. I probably never would have been a runner otherwise. Peer pressure in adulthood takes many forms – where we live, how we dress, dress our kids, send our kids to school, give to charity, go on vacations, etc. Just like our kids, we can be pulled up or dragged down by the company we keep.

For now, I’m elated with my daughter’s friend group and their decision to take up track. She’s turned out to be pretty fast, which is a pleasant surprise to her and it’s fun to see her grow and evolve into an athlete. Like their swim team, there are kids of all ages and both genders, so the younger ones can look up to the older ones who get to be role models. Even though they race against each other, they are always trying to beat their own time.

Watching her hit the road makes me wistful for my running days, which are long behind me. Blessed with long legs she looks way better than me in her running togs.

May her miles be many and her chafing be minimal, and may her peers continue to push her in a positive direction.

 

 

Paying It Forward

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After the recent blizzard, parking lots were a mess with piles of snow taking up many parking spaces. After finding my zen in a yoga class I was dreamily strolling toward the parking lot. Scanning the area to find my car, I noticed a young man inspecting a minivan’s bumper, gently wiping off salt and dirt, clearly looking for damage. It wasn’t until he walked away that I realized it was my car he was checking. I tried to run after him but he had crossed a busy street and was gone. It was a frigid day and I didn’t have the energy to leap through traffic to track him down. Instead, I returned to the scene of the crime.

Flustered and irritated, I checked the bumper, which was mildly scuffed. Was it new or old, I wondered? Not being one to take much notice of those things, I had no idea. I grumpily got into my car, resigned to the fact that people are horrible, no one takes responsibility for their actions anymore, and I was just another victim of a faceless crime. Then, I noticed a piece of white paper, fluttering in the wind, stuck underneath the windshield wiper on the passenger side of the car. It couldn’t possibly be what I hoped it was, could it? I hopped out, grabbed the note and read it. The person had left his name and cell phone number and said he didn’t think there was damage to my car but to call him if I needed to have it fixed. I held it up like a trophy, feeling elated that there was goodness in the world. A woman was walking near me, heading to a store and I gleefully told her what happened. “You made my day,” she said.

Is it sad that I sometimes expect so little of humanity that a little scuff would bring me such joy? I told my husband about it and neither of us could get excited about a little scrape on a four-year-old car. It definitely wasn’t anything worth my time and trouble. I was determined to send the guy a text and thank him for his goodness, a little cosmic positive reinforcement for his mensch-like behavior. The weeks flew by and I forgot about it until I discovered the note in one of my household piles. Knowing that it is never too late to act, I sent him a text:

Me: Hello, You left a note on my car last month in a shopping center after scraping my bumper. I’ve been meaning to write you to tell you how happy it made me to know there are still good, honest people in the world. I saw you as you were leaving but couldn’t catch you. I was so frustrated and then I found your note. You really made my day. And no worries about the bumper -it’s not a big deal! Let’s both keep paying the kindness forward!

The Reply: Wow! You made my day too! That was my 17 year old son and he left my cell because I am easier to reach. Thank you for your kindness and understanding and I just shared your note with my son who is driving and really appreciated it. He was backing out slowly and a waiting driver was being impatient and honking and he got flustered. So your kindness was a great antidote! We will indeed pay it forward. Have a great day from both of us!

I wasn’t expecting a mom to mom interaction, but it made the whole thing even sweeter. Clearly, I told her, she was an outstanding mother with award winning parenting skills as she was raising a fine young man. I have an 18-year-old son. Would he have left a note? Would I? I never asked for her name, nor she mine, so it remained a lovely, anonymous interlude that I suspect we will both remember fondly.

I try to take the peace and tranquility that I learn on the yoga mat out into the world. Take a deep breath, clear out the clutter in my mind, be kind to myself and to others. I love that it’s called the “practice” of yoga. Human beings are always practicing too, trying to get things right. This young man gave me a gift. You never know what the universe will send your way.

 

 

Better Late Than Never

There are many things parents teach their children—toilet-training, personal hygiene, shopping, food preparation, shoe-tying, bike-riding, and swimming to name a few. I have had the pleasure of teaching one of my children to feed himself through his gastrostomy tube.

This 17-year-old son, the second of my four children, was born with a Jewish genetic disorder called Familial Dysautonomia (http://www.familialdysautonomia.org/facts.htm). He walks, talks, and is cognitively with it, but he is medically and physically fragile. He eats some food by mouth, but gets much of his nutrition through a gastrostomy tube in his stomach.

He was diagnosed with this disease when he was 1-year-old, but he had feeding trouble from birth. A g-tube was placed at 6 months, once the doctors figured out that the formula from a bottle often went into his lungs instead of his stomach. Speech therapists encouraged us to feed him by mouth in the hopes that the tube would be temporary. As desperate young parents, we spent hours and hours feeding our son by mouth although he was often uninterested and somewhat averse. We had one other child at the time who was only 16 months older. We were discouraged but accepted the tube feedings as part of our life, at least for the short term.

While it was hard to accept this fate, it was much quicker and efficient to tube-feed him. Sure, we still had to feed him several times a day, but it only took a few minutes each time. We grew accustomed to the stares and questions from curious people. We just wanted to feed our kid and hoped that he would continue to grow and be “normal.”

Like many parenting tasks, the feedings soon turned to drudgery and felt like a chain around our necks. Every couple of hours we had to drop what we were doing and spend a few minutes feeding our son. Yes, we had to feed his siblings as well, but with them we could put the food in front of them and walk away. The feeding tube felt more like a tether as we had to stand there and pour the liquid into the syringe, connected to the tube that went into his stomach.

As he got older he could at least hold the syringe so we could dash around feeding the other kids and return frequently to pour more formula into the syringe. But that too became cumbersome. What to do? How could I make my son more independent with this task?

Perhaps divine intervention led me to find a funnel underneath a sink in a newly renovated bathroom in my home. Hmmm, what the heck was this? Some piece left over by the plumber? A light bulb went on over my head, as I could envision this funnel sitting in my son’s feeding syringe, giving him a wider opening into which he could pour the formula, given his less than optimal gross and fine motor skills. It’s not called the “mother” of invention for nothing.

He resisted the idea at first but quickly got the hang of it. Freedom, at last! And the funnel? Turns out it was meant to fill the soap dispenser that is built into the counter-top. You can imagine the reaction I got when I called Kohler to order 12 of them!

So maybe we were remiss in teaching our son some of the other self-care skills. He can’t ride a bike, but not for lack of trying. He’s safe and comfortable in the pool, but he can’t actually swim strokes—again, not for lack of lessons. Those things weren’t in the cards that God dealt him.

But he did recently reach a momentous milestone. He learned to tie his shoes. We have tried to teach him over the years without success. His frustration, and ours, was too great with the return benefit just not seeming worth it. Sure, I knew he was too old for his mom to still be tying his shoes, but somehow it just didn’t make it to the top of the “things to worry about” list. His health is always number one.

Recently I took my son along with my 11-year-old daughter who wanted to get a new pair of Converse All Star sneakers. While at the store, he decided that he would like a pair as well. Given that he rarely shows any interest in fashion I happily agreed to buy them for him. He was very pleased with his new shoes, which inspired me to raise the dreaded issue of shoe-tying. We tried the bunny ears technique first which was too cumbersome. Somehow, when I showed him exactly how I tied my shoes, it clicked and his fingers were able to do what his brain told them to!

He is super proud of his new skill as he walks around in his new Chuck Taylor’s. And as his mom, I couldn’t be happier. Better late than never.

 

Discluded

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The topic of inclusion for people with special needs has been on my mind lately. In particular, I’m focused on my seventeen-year-old son who recently auditioned and was selected to be in a two-year conservatory program for students with cognitive and/or developmental disabilities. It was a group audition with a one minute solo opportunity of the actor’s choice. Our son told a brief story about his beach vacation, complete with his amazingly good animal imitations. I wasn’t there, but I can only imagine that he brought down the house.

To be included, or not to be included? That is the question.

It is especially pertinent to the parent of a child with special needs. My son has a genetic disease, Familial Dysautonomia. He walks and talks, but his balance and gait are not great. He has a feeding tube, through which he can feed himself and he also eats by mouth. He has no behavior problems and is sweet with an innocent personality. We encourage him to be as independent as possible.

I recall a holiday dinner with friends a few years ago when my then eight-year-old daughter and her friend came to complain to the adults that the big kids weren’t playing with them.

“They’re discluding us,” they announced to our amusement. We did what adults do – told the big kids to be nice and tried to persuade the little ones to give them some space.

But really, must everyone be together all the time? Sometimes I like to hang out with people like me, sometimes I don’t.

When my disabled son was younger, I was very focused on inclusion and mainstreaming. I was so hopeful that he would fit in, make friends, and lead a typical life. Why shouldn’t my child be included? I was his advocate and tried so hard to focus on the parts of him that were like everyone else, rather than the things that made him different. He goes to a large public high school where he is mainstreamed and manages amazingly well with a lot of loving support.

As he’s gotten older, however, my acceptance of his differences has evolved. I can embrace the wacky, fun, quirky things about him. When he aged out of day camp and their wonderful inclusion program, the next option within the camp was with a self-contained group of disabled kids. At first I bristled at the idea of him being with a group of disabled kids – what about typical peers and role models? But, I had no other options, the camp had been great for my son since he was three-years-old, and it was better than him spending the summer playing video games in my basement.  We decided to give it a try.

I learned that my son didn’t mind being in the group at all – in fact he liked it. Even if I perceived that he was higher functioning than many of the other kids, he enjoyed making his friends laugh, helping out and hanging out with the counselors. It was the beginning of my being able to watch him move into and out of inclusion with fluidity and grace.

The campers went on a field trip to an improv place. The counselors told me my son loved it, which gave me the idea to pursue a theater class. While the theater program offers both inclusion and self-contained classes, we opted for the self-contained ones since he had no previous “training.” He took two classes last year. We went to the end of the semester observation. My husband felt that our son seemed so different than the other kids. I, on the other hand, saw him as belonging in the group and was so happy to see him shine. Apparently, inclusion is in the eye of the beholder.

I am thrilled that my son has this opportunity to learn some new skills, have fun, make friends, and be part of another nurturing community. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” These kids hit their marks, sing mostly on cue, and exit stage right and stage left, albeit slowly. They may have different abilities, but their performances are no less sweet.