Today I Felt Like a Bad Mom

Empty Spaces 2
Today I felt like a bad mom.

My kids were bored, and I did not entertain them.  I did not take them anywhere or buy them movie tickets or arrange for their friends to come over.  I told them to find something to do.

When I asked them what they wanted for lunch, they weren’t ready to eat.  So when they were hungry, I listed a few ideas that they could fix for themselves.  They wanted me to do it for them.  I didn’t.  I told them I was sure they could handle it.

I didn’t entertain them.  I didn’t serve them.  I didn’t do things for them that they could do for themselves.

And I’ll be honest.  I felt guilty about it.

I wondered if I was doing my job.  You know, my mom job, the constant emotional and practical parenting work that leaves us moms exhausted at the end of every day.

Because the truth is that sometimes I measure my success as a parent by the extent of my weariness at the end of the day.  Sometimes I rate myself as a mother by how much I personally sacrificed to make everyone happy that day.

I mean, if we went to the zoo in the morning, packed a picnic for lunch, hiked at the park all afternoon, stopped for ice cream on the way home, and squeezed in a quick date with friends at some point before I cooked their favorite dinner, then I was the most amazing mom ever, right?  And if my kids were happy at breakfast time and at lunch time and at dinner time and at bedtime, if I made everyone happy all day long, then I totally rocked this mom thing.

But then I thought about what I DID do today.

I gave my kids an opportunity to use their imaginations, to create their own fun, and to manage their own time.

I did them a favor by letting them actually feel a void and then allowing them to resolve that discomfort all by themselves.

I gave them a chance to be independent young men in a safe environment and to gain confidence that they are capable human beings and to rest assured that they are on a path that will prepare them to take care of their own selves and their own families one day.

And at ages 11 and 13, that day is approaching much more quickly than I would like to believe.

Maybe I was actually a really good mom today.  Maybe we moms feel guilty about way too much stuff.  Maybe we’re trying too hard to create happy adults and shooting ourselves in the foot in the process.  Life isn’t always happy, after all, and grownups need to be able to cope with life when it isn’t.

Maybe we are wearing ourselves out while inadvertently teaching our kids to expect others to fill their empty spaces – whether those are in their hearts or their minds or their stomachs.

Yikes.  That’s a scary thought, right?

Ain’t nobody got time for working extra hard just to sabotage our own goals as parents.  There are WAY too many other things to do to keep all the plates spinning.   We don’t want to waste time shaping our kids into the opposite of what we want them to be, mostly to ease our own guilt and to secure their happiness in the moment, and then waste more time trying to un-create the selfish or entitled attitudes that we created.

Plus, it would be nice to salvage a few minutes to read a book every once in a while.

Really, reading an entire chapter in one sitting would be wonderful.

So I don’t feel so guilty anymore.

Maybe today was one of my better parenting days after all, and I didn’t even try so hard.

We can always pack a picnic for the park tomorrow.

I See You, Mama, and I Know It’s Hard

I See You Mama

I wanted to write something flowery for Mother’s Day.  I wanted to honor my grandmothers, who were strong, morally upright women, or my kind, resilient aunts, or my mother, who has been a relentless cheerleader throughout my life.  I tried to do it.  I stared at the page, typed, deleted, typed, deleted, while time ticked away.  But the words would not get in line.  When I tried to write about the glory of motherhood, my quiet thoughts were drowned by a louder refrain:  Life is so stinking hard sometimes.

It’s weird, I know, but I typically write with only a vague sense of where I am going.  I don’t check the map and I don’t chase the words.  Ideas approach, and some are shy and scuffle away, and some unpack and make themselves comfortable.  Then words push and shove their way to the front and, if I’m gentle, they allow me to sculpt them like clay.

So far, they haven’t failed me.

So maybe this is what I’m supposed to write this Mother’s Day.  Maybe I’m supposed to say to you that life is hard sometimes.  Like really, REALLY hard sometimes.  Maybe I’m supposed to say to you that Mother’s Day is nice, but it is not enough.  Maybe I’m supposed to acknowledge that you may be cherishing a new grandchild this Mother’s Day or you might be grieving the loss of your own mother this year or you may be celebrating joyously with all of your children in a few days or you may be spending Sunday on your knees, praying that your child will be walking a better path by the time the next Mother’s Day rolls around.  Maybe I’m supposed to say that I see you, that I hear you, that I know that motherhood is fun and rewarding but also the greatest challenge of your life.

Maybe I’m supposed to tell you that when the waves are crashing against your family and they are so high and you are so afraid, I know that YOU are the one who battens down the hatches and selflessly fights so hard to keep that ship afloat.

That’s what you do, Moms.  I know it.  I SEE you.

Not just on Mother’s Day.  On every day.

When you feel like you could vomit every minute of the day and your insides are being karate chopped by tiny knees and elbows, you are the one who drags herself to work so that your coworkers aren’t inconvenienced and the family has insurance.

When you smell like baby puke and your shirt is wet because you forgot to grab a nursing pad and you wonder if you will ever feel like your cute self again, you are the one who sacrifices yet another shower because the baby won’t stop crying.

When you feel like a completely inadequate parent and wonder if your child will not go to college because you are swaddling him wrong, you are the one who reads another book or attends another parenting class or calls on your mom squad for help, even though you are probably doing just fine.

When your toddler throws up all over everything in the middle of the night, you are the one who is gagging while washing the sheets at 3 a.m. and scrubbing the carpet when you would rather just sell the house tomorrow instead.

When your preschooler is throwing the mother of all fits in the checkout line and you have $200 of groceries piled high in the cart, you are the one who refuses to buy the Milky Way despite the glares of  customers who have forgotten that preschoolers are  little monsters with cute faces.

When a person your kids love drives you within a minute of insanity, you are the one who remains calm and composed so that those important relationships can flourish.

When you are so worried about paying the bills that you feel physically sick, you are the one who makes sure that your children feel safe and secure and unaware of the gravity of your concerns.

When you are so tired that you can barely stand but your child has an important project that everyone forgot, you are the one who runs to the store to buy the glitter glue for the finishing touch.

When it is cold and wet and you want to curl up with a book by the fire, you are the one who slogs through the mud to sit in the pouring rain to cheer for your kid who’s playing soccer.

When you feel broken and empty and unable to give one more thing, you are the one who digs deep to find an internal spring of love and kindness and compassion.

When you are sure that your head will explode at the thump of one more bottle flipping onto the ground, you are the one who redirects your kid’s attention to his equally annoying spinners.

When you are overwhelmed with guilt because your kids have exceeded the pediatrician’s recommendations for screen time almost every day of their entire lives AND they don’t eat enough vegetables, you are the one who packs everyone up for a healthy picnic and a hike at the park instead of going to your book club.

When it’s clear that your child just isn’t cut out for the band or the basketball team or the drama club, you are the one who cheers just a little too loudly and gives her a standing ovation from the crowd.

When your heart is pained because your child has been treated unfairly, you are the one who grits your teeth and calmly advises him even though you would possibly derive more satisfaction from punching someone in the face.

When you are emotionally exhausted from constantly fighting for your child’s unique needs to be met, you are the one who refuses to settle and takes more time off work to meet with his teachers about the accommodations outlined in his IEP.

When your child’s skin is so hot and she is so sick and she breathes those germs right into your face, you are the one who pulls her in closer knowing that you will be taking some sick time in just a few days.

When your child’s teacher calls to tell you that she cheated on a test, you are the one who says, “Thank you for telling me” when your internal mama bear wants to scream, “I know you are wrong because my child would never . . .”

When your child or another loved one is in the hospital and you really aren’t sure if everything will be okay, you are the one who holds your kids tightly and tells them that you will get through this together.

When your faith hits a rough patch and you question who God really is, you are the one who loads everyone in the car to go to church and models a commitment to spiritual growth even through adversity.

When you know the family vacation is more work than fun for you, you are the one who makes all of the reservations and packs all of the snacks and stuffs all of the suitcases and then handles the complaints because you bought the wrong colored Gatorade and you didn’t grab the right bottle of hair gel.

When your teenager’s attitude toward you is hurtful and disrespectful, you are the one who suppresses your tears and takes the phone and the car keys, knowing this will make the next week like hell for you.

When your daughter cries and questions her decision when you leave her at college, you are the one who hugs her and reassures her she is doing the right thing and then sobs for five hours on the drive home.

When your child disappoints you by doing something you never ever thought he would do, you are the one who sits down with the principal or pays for the rehab or visits the jail cell and offers that son or daughter the purest and most sincere love and grace.

When you are hurting deeply because your child rarely calls or visits, you are the one who waits with a broken heart but with arms that are always wide open.

When you cry because you miss the innocence and dependence of your kids, you are the one who remembers that your job was never to maintain little children at all but was always to raise strong men and women who would leave you.

Yes, motherhood is an amazing journey of incredible highs, but it is also a journey that is peppered with the most gut-wrenching of lows.  The emotions are extraordinarily sharp on both ends.  We idealize motherhood and spend a lot of energy projecting the bright spots in our journey to others, so it is easy for really good moms to feel alone and insecure when times are tough.  But the truth is that you are probably your most impressive when you FEEL like you are at your worst.  Because those are the times when your ability to handle motherhood was really put to the test.  And you didn’t quit.  You may not have showered.  You may not have fed your kids vegetables.  You may not have said exactly the right words.  But you did not give up.

If you are a mom, I hope that you are honored this Mother’s Day.  I hope that someone buys you some flowers, and I hope your kids write a nice note in a pretty pink card.  I hope that you celebrate the special women in your life, and I hope that you are reminded to congratulate your fellow moms every single time you see their kids accomplishing goals, sharing their talents, or, most importantly, just being good people.

But if you really want to honor special women this Mother’s Day, look for the mom who is tired.  Look for the mom whose son or daughter is struggling.  Look for the mom who is nursing a sick child or the mom who is grieving a loss or the new mom who is just now adjusting to this mysterious new identity of mother.  Look for the mom who has to fight every single day for the rights of her kid.

SEE HER.

Thank her.

Love her.

Remind her that she is doing the most selfless and important work in the world.

Then jump on her ship with a bucket, and help her keep that thing afloat.

 

A Letter to My Son on His 13th Birthday

baby G

Dear Gavin,

Thirteen years ago today, you entered the world just a little sooner and a little more quickly than expected.  It seems like yesterday, and it seems like so many years ago, and the details are vivid and blurry at the same time.  I remember how you snuggled into a warm ball of folded limbs in my arms, how I studied every inch of you, from your fuzzy blonde hair to your teeny fingers and tiny toes.  I remember how you turned toward your daddy’s voice in those first moments, how we knew that you had been listening from the cozy cocoon where you had grown.  I remember how my anxieties melted away when I first held you, how I realized that mothering is both innate and mysterious, a bit frightening but surprisingly comfortable at the same time.   When you were born, my life, my purpose, my legacy – everything – it all changed.  I became a mother.

Before you were born, no one had ever depended on your dad and me for survival, so parenting was both exciting and intense.  The early days were messy and stinky and busy, exhausting and sometimes very long, yet the years have passed so quickly, like sparkling comets shooting through the sky.  I am in awe today as I look at you, a boy who is closer to being a man I have not met than to being the baby with corn silk hair who wrinkled his nose and squinted his eyes to make us laugh.  It is impossible to record all of those memories, all of the milestones and parties and vacations, the field trips and sporting events and spontaneous funny things that you have said.  But you should know that those memories are like jewels to me.  They are gems stored away in the treasure chest of my mind, riches that will not be broken or taken, buried or lost.

Gavin, things are changing between us, just as they are supposed to change, because you are growing up.  It is the sweetest and most difficult transition for a mom.  But you should know that your dad and I are incredibly proud of the young man you have become.  You are smart.  You are ambitious.  You are confident but humble, a leader but a team player, too.  You are a good friend, a caring grandson, a hard worker, and a young man of faith.  You aren’t afraid to stand up for what you believe.  You are funny and compassionate, sincere and loving and kind.  I don’t know exactly what you will do or who you will be five years from now, but I know that the path you are charting is GOOD.  I know that you will be a blessing to the world around you, and I know that you will reap many rewards in return.

I believe in you, Gavin.

But I am afraid for you, too.

It’s not that I don’t trust you or that I expect you to stumble at a fork in the road.  It’s just that I want to protect you, but I can’t always save you in the ways that I once could.  When you were younger, I could stop you before you ran into the street or grab your hand before you touched something hot.  I could redirect you before you risked just a little too much.  I could steer you toward the people whom I trusted to keep you safe.

But now you are in middle school, and you are meeting new people, people I don’t know, and your world is expanding beyond the fences I created.  You are facing problems that aren’t always visible to me, decisions that can change the trajectory of your life.  You are maturing, managing your own self, becoming your own amazing person, and it is heart-wrenching and incredible and agonizing and glorious all at the same time.

There are so many lessons that I want to share with you as you become a teenager, Gavin, lessons to tuck deep inside your soul so that they are not just things you know but things that are as much a part of who you are as your lungs and your freckles and your bones.  I want to talk to you about how “greatness” is so much more than what this world suggests.  About how failure is a part of living a full and meaningful life.  About how the people you spend time with will influence you, just as one cinnamon candy will flavor all the other candies in the dish.  About how you will always find what you are looking for, so look for the good, and about how happiness is a choice that you can make each and every day, whatever your circumstances.  About how the problems on the surface are rarely the problems that need fixed, so invest in scalpels rather than band-aids if you want to find your peace.

Maybe these are lessons for fourteen or fifteen or sixteen.  I’m not sure, Gavin, but let me teach you this.

I once believed that the moths that flutter around our porch lights were attracted by the glow, but scientists say this is not true.  They believe that moths navigate their course in the darkness of night by calibrating their flight against the position of the moon.  The moonlight is the moth’s touchstone, the constant that allows it to orient itself and fly in a straight line.  This is effective as long as the moth is not distracted from the moonlight, but the moth’s best instincts have been sabotaged by the glitter and gleam of artificial lights.  A moth that flies too close to a lightbulb or a flame becomes disoriented and loses track of the moon.  Its straight path deteriorates into a never-ending circle as it expends all of its energy, unable to get back on track.  Eventually, the lost moth becomes exhausted, often landing on and dying with its artificial moon.

When a moth loses sight of what will safely and steadily guide it, when it is distracted by something that is closer and brighter at that moment, it inadvertently creates its own demise.

Whatever you do, Gavin, do not lose sight of your touchstones.  They will guide you safely through the darkness until the sun rises once again.  Don’t exhaust yourself or lose your way by following something that shines just a little bit brighter than what you know to be true.

I try not to worry, Gavin, but it’s just a part of my job as a mom.  I fret about the test you have today and the track meet you have tomorrow, the college and career you will choose six years from now and the wife you will marry in a decade or more.  But I am confident that you will be ready for all of those things when they come.

I worry more that you will become distracted, that you will forget that this home, that our love for you, will always be a place where you can be safe and real in a world that will test you with its artificial glow.  This will always be the place where your truth can be rediscovered, where your bucket can be refilled, and where your spirit can find rest, even when you are all grown up.  This will always, always, always be your moon.

You are someone special, Gavin, and your dad and I are so lucky to have the privilege to walk the journey of your life with you.  I cannot wait to see the man, the husband, and the father that you will become.

But if you can slow down just a little, I will be fine with that, too.

Happy 13th.

Love Always,

Mom

mom and G crop

I’m Not Sure How to Mom Anymore

sports

I.

I have two sons.  In just a month, they will be 11 and 13.  And our home, well, it’s not the same as it used to be.  There are basketballs and gym shoes, shin guards and dirty socks at every turn.  There is a constant search for missing earbuds and phone chargers, and “pump up” music, the kind that plays before sporting events, has become the soundtrack of our lives.  There is a funky smell here, a mingling of stinky shoe, sweaty uniform, and Axe body wash, that wafts through the air.  And it is next to impossible to keep snacks stocked in the cabinets.  Almost-teen boys are a lot less snips and snails and puppy dog tails and a lot more bottomless stomach.

I don’t mind wrangling the socks and washing the uniforms, and I’m learning to hide my favorite snacks from the scavengers who live here.  I know to watch for loose balls at the bottom of the stairs, and I’m an expert at hunting for “lost” equipment as we are running late to practice, again.  I don’t even mind the stinky smell.  I mean, I don’t like the stinky smell, but I’m becoming desensitized.  And my mother-in-law buys me candles, so that helps.

What I do mind is that these simple, insignificant changes signal something bigger, a shift in my responsibilities as a parent, a change in what motherhood means.  The canary that represents childhood at our house is barely hanging onto its perch.  I’ve been trying to resuscitate it, but it isn’t working, and the thought of a dead canary here nearly stops my heart from beating, too.

My little boys aren’t so little now, and I don’t really know what I’m doing.  I’m not sure I know how to mom anymore.

I was skilled at rocking my sleeping babies.
I was quick at chasing my busy toddlers.
I was smart at exploring the woods with my curious preschoolers.
I was impressive at creating crafts and experiments for my kindergarteners.
I was even good at teaching my inquisitive elementary students to read.

But I don’t know how to parent 10 and 12.

 

 

II.

A few weeks before Christmas, my younger son begged me to chaperone his concert rehearsal for fifth- and sixth-graders who play strings.  He pleaded with me several times, and I changed the subject several times, mostly because missing work usually creates more work for me in one way or another.  But he persisted, and the teacher sent out a code red that said something like “We are in need of chaperones” but that sounded to me like “These kids will never amount to anything if none of their mothers even care, for goodness sakes.”  And also I realized that my little boy is 10, and he was begging me to go, and in just a few short months he may be begging me NOT to.

So I signed up.

On the morning of the rehearsal, I was excited to spend a little extra time with my son.  I waited in the office until the secretary released the students for the trip and boys and girls rushed into the hallway with music books and backpacks and violins.  I hurried to the bus to welcome them and watched through the window as my son and his friends approached.  Soon he boarded, giggling and chatting with his classmates, who quickly shuffled past my row to claim the seats in the back.

He may have said hi as he passed by.

I’m not exactly sure.

But I am sure that there was no hug, no I’m-so-glad-you’re-here-Mom, not even a pause for a chat or a fist bump.  There was nothing, really, to indicate that the two of us were any more related than any other pair of people on that bus.

The rehearsal went off without a hitch, and soon we were boarding again to head back to the elementary school.  On the return trip, I glanced behind me every once in a while to see what was happening in the seats in the rear.  The kids talked and joked and laughed and enjoyed escaping the classroom for an hour or two.  When the bus doors opened once again, the students hastily exited to return to class.  And the kid who had begged me to chaperone this trip scurried down the hallway without ever looking back.

And that was that.

My dog wagged her tail and jumped excitedly when I got home, which soothed my fear that I had turned invisible after leaving the house in the morning.  I checked the mirror and pinched myself just to be sure.

Yep.  I’m still here.

Later that evening, to my surprise, my ten-year-old thanked me for going on the field trip “with” him.  He was so happy that I had taken a few hours off work to ride that bus, even though it had seemed like my presence didn’t matter at all.  The truth was that he never intended to spend time with me on the way to his rehearsal.  He just wanted to know that, when given two choices, I would choose him.

Thank goodness I did.  Because I came very close to failing that test. 

I may have felt a bit neglected that morning, but I knew exactly where to sit at the concert that night for a perfect view of my son and his cello.

So there’s that, too.

This is what parenting 10 looks like.

 

 

III.

Last Friday, my older son’s middle school basketball team was recognized during half-time of the varsity game at the high school.  It was a big deal to us.  But as we finalized our plans for the evening, he seemed unexpectedly stressed.

“Mom,” he said, looking conflicted, “you can just drop me off at the high school.  I mean, if you want to, that’s fine.”

Drop him off?  Was this kid serious?

This was going to be a sweet moment.  I mean, he was wearing a freaking bow tie, and they were announcing his name, you know, over the loud speaker.  In front of a big crowd.  At a varsity basketball game.

No, drop off is not an option.   

“Okay, yeah, well, I really want you to be there, Mom.”

Yes . . . I know that. . . So what am I missing?

“But it’s okay if I hang out with my team, right?  You won’t care, will you?”

Oooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhh.

Of courseYour team.  Right.  Your friends.  For sure.  Absolutely.  I mean, that will be perfect because I really just wanted to concentrate on the game anyway. 

Yeah.

So my son played it cool with his teammates while I sat alone in a gym packed with people since the rest of the family had other things to do.  It was different.  But I enjoyed observing my son from a distance, seeing the whole picture of who he is without the distraction of the details.  I enjoyed watching how he interacted with his friends and  admiring the young man he has become.  I know I’m his mom, but, really, that kid is pretty amazing.

I didn’t mind cheering for the home team while he socialized since I love watching basketball, too.   But I was shocked that night, because something about high school has definitely changed, and very recently, I think, because I have been teaching high school for thirteen years and I have never noticed.

Get ready for this.  Grab a chair because it’s crazy.  Ready?

High school boys LOOK JUST LIKE GROWNUP MEN now!

Seriously, when did this start happening?  And why aren’t we researching how to make this stop?

I looked at the players in disbelief, imagining what my grown sons will look like and wondering how ALL of those changes can possibly happen in the next few years.  It seems impossible.  Glimpses of the future flashed through my mind, tempered by glimpses of the past, when I was cheering from the student section and my husband was the high school basketball player and everyone loitered at Burger King or ran through the Taco Bell drive thru after the game.

Time is not a distance runner.  He is a sprinter.  He races past at an incredible speed.  Kids grow up, and adults get old, and moments pass quickly and are lost forever.  Our only hope of bottling yesterday is to preserve its memories.  And that only works if we take time to make them.

While we were at the high school that night, my son touched base with me only once.

Yes, when he needed money.

But on our way home, he talked and talked and talked about the events of the evening and the conversation he had with a former coach and the funny things that happened with his friends.  And the two of us decided to run through Taco Bell, just like my friends and I did in high school, even though we had already eaten dinner, even though it was after ten o’clock at night.

I wonder if, ten years from now, he will remember eating those tacos with his mom after a varsity basketball game in 2017.

I hope that he will.

This is what parenting 12 looks like.

 

 

IV.

When I started teaching, I worked at a rural high school in southeastern Ohio with a man named Jim Williams.  Jim Williams was tall and serious and a respected veteran teacher.  He had a dry sense of humor and a quick wit, and it seemed to me that he had read every piece of literature that had ever been written.  He was also the chair of the English department, so he was, at least in my mind, my boss.

I was a novice, still learning the ropes and finding my confidence, and Jim Williams was never anything but kind to me when I worked with him.  But, because of my own insecurities as a young teacher, I felt about fifteen years old whenever we spoke.  My mind defaulted from being the high school teacher to being just another student, although he always treated me as a respected colleague.

So Jim Williams and I didn’t chat very often, mostly because I was more comfortable feeling my real age of twenty-something than defaulting to an anxious fifteen.  When I needed professional advice, he was helpful, but I didn’t hang around long enough to discuss the news or the weather or my life outside of school.  The English wing had no extra room for me, so I could easily escape to my classroom by the gym with any seeds of wisdom he had shared.

In hindsight, I should have devoted more time to learning from Jim Williams than to hiding from him because he shared some of the best advice that I have ever been given.

And it had nothing to do with teaching.

It was a gloomy winter day at the high school when I received a message that my baby boy was sick and I would need to be home for the next couple of days.  Not only was I striving to excel as a teacher at that time, but I was also just learning to juggle the demands of teaching and motherhood.  Before having a baby, I rarely used a sick day, and I often continued working after school until late into the evening.  I took pride in my commitment and my creativity and all of the extra hours that I logged.  I don’t remember exactly what I said to Jim Williams that day, but I imagine that it was some version of an apology for needing to be home.

What I do remember clearly is that he stopped me – so that he could say something profound instead of listening to my nonsense.

Jim Williams said, “There will always be another teacher, Mary Ann.”

Oooooooh.  That burns.  I mean, I’ve been trying really hard to be the best and to do the most and to keep all the plates spinning.  You haven’t even noticed?

He wasn’t finished.

“There will always be another teacher, Mary Ann, but your son will never have another mother.”

See.  I told you he was smart.

Yes, it stung, but I understood what Jim Williams was saying.  He wasn’t telling me that I was easily replaceable or that my teaching wasn’t up to his expectations.  He wasn’t saying that hiring a substitute for a day or two would be equal to my presence in the classroom.  But he was telling me to take a deep breath and prioritize.  And I needed that.  Because sometimes I was so worried about being the best teacher for my students that I wasn’t being the best mother for my baby, even when I was at home with him at night.

Jim Williams was saying that my presence as a mother matters.

And I have never forgotten that.

 

 

V.

Maybe raising 10 and 12 isn’t as complicated as I think it is.  Maybe it’s mostly about presence, about “choosing” the people we love and connecting with them whenever and however we can.  Maybe it’s as simple as being in the same place, even when we are all in separate rooms doing separate things.  Maybe it’s just about being.  Maybe just being is exactly what my sons need.

Don’t get me wrong.  We eat dinner as a family and play games together.  We plan fun events and talk and spend time with grandparents and friends.  Those things are important.

But there are many more hours now when I am not chasing anyone or disciplining anyone or teaching anyone about fractions or saving anyone from harm.

There are many more hours now when I am just here.

And that’s okay.

Maybe parenting 10 and 12 is being close enough to come to the rescue but far enough away to let my children take a chance.  Maybe it’s watching them climb the tall, scary ladder, and then holding the safety net under the tightrope they are walking to become men.

The minutes, they pass quickly, and there is no buying them back when the canary’s song fades.  So maybe I just need to relax, enjoy the journey, and remember that just being matters.

And maybe it matters the most when it seems like it doesn’t matter at all.

 

 

Image Source: Steven Depolo under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

 

What It Feels Like to be the White Mother of Black Sons

Rikki

My heart has been hurting, friends.  The world has been spinning out of control recently, and I keep thinking, “Why won’t all of us just listen to one another?  Why don’t we seek understanding instead of taking sides when we all want the same things – to be respected, to be safe, and to be treated fairly?  Why can’t we acknowledge the pain in another person’s heart and help to heal it?”

Then I read a Facebook post written by my friend and coworker, Rikki Johnson, and I was so moved that I asked her if she would adapt her post for our “What It Feels Like Series” here on Still Chasing Fireflies.  I am incredibly thankful that she agreed to open her heart to us in this way.  I know Rikki as an enthusiastic English teacher, but she and I have another thing in common: We are both moms of boys.  Our boys don’t have the same racial heritage, but her essay reminds us that ALL mothers share the same heart, and this is a way that we can connect and understand one another, even when our life experiences may not be the same.  As a mother of black children, Rikki worries about some things that I hadn’t even thought about before.  Her essay challenged me.

PLEASE read Rikki’s story.  Please read it with an open heart and mind and share it with your friends and family if you are moved, too.  That is one small way that you can be a bright light in the darkness, just like a firefly, as we all seek to be understood.

I’ve remained pretty silent lately regarding the recent incidences of the two unarmed black men murdered at the hands of police officers, as well as the murders and shootings of the Dallas police officers. I’ll start with this: it is a difficult time in our country to be a police officer. The murders of those men protecting the crowd in Dallas is despicable and it only overshadows the message so many are trying to peacefully spread. Think of this though: the distrust, disrespect, and criticism of the police these days is very similar to the reality that black men have faced as a whole throughout our country’s history.

My recent silence on this issue mostly stems from fear. I’m afraid of being disappointed in the reactions to my feelings about this by those closest to me and my boys: my family and friends. I hold so many people to such high expectations that I usually set myself up to get my feelings hurt when they don’t live up to them. I’m begging you to see my perspective and try to understand where I’m coming from. I am a white woman married to a black man, and I’m raising black sons.

So many people hold my children and husband as a separate entity than my neighbors’ black husband and children because I am white. My family is an example that I know many of my friends and family members use to justify their perception that racism is no longer an issue. My husband is used as an example that “good” black men do exist. But if my husband were caught making the same mistakes as many of my white family and friends have done, would he still be one of the “good” ones? What if one of my boys were caught shoplifting a candy bar or some other youthful antic like toilet papering someone’s house or breaking curfew? Would you label him a thug behind our backs?

Why don’t you listen when my husband openly speaks about his personal experience being black in this country?  Why don’t you listen to me when I try to explain that my husband and boys, yes, even the “good ones,” are statistically 2.5 times more likely to be murdered at the hands of police. And if they are, someone, somewhere, will try to find some past record, social media post, or picture to justify why they somehow deserved it. Heaven forbid, if my son were to ever make a mistake and be subjected to the legal system, he would be more likely to receive a stiffer penalty than a white man who made the same mistake. How many times do you get pulled over in a year? My husband was pulled over 6 times in the last 12 months while driving home through the predominantly white city where he works. Some of his driving infractions: failure to signal, failure to come to a complete stop at an empty intersection, and going 40 in a 35. Most of those times, he was sent on his way after they ran his license, insurance, and plates. Maybe it was his nursing scrubs that eased the officers’ minds that he was a “good one?” In cities across the country, black people are disproportionately pulled over for minor driving infractions compared to white people. They are also 2 times more likely to be subjected to being searched.  These are facts, and my husband and boys are not any more immune to them than the next black man down the street.

If you love us, then listen please. Please stop trying to explain away our experience as a family or my fears for my husband or my boys because it makes you uncomfortable. This is our reality, and just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. These problems remain because people keep trying to explain them away or debate them or say that others are only trying to stir the pot. We all know that not talking about a problem doesn’t make it go away. Listen to what people are saying instead of just waiting for your turn to speak. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and remember that just because something isn’t a part of your experience, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I’m not sorry for being born white. I’m not ashamed of who I am at all. I’m comfortable being me around any person, and I always have been. But, as a white person, I recognize the privilege that comes with it. Growing up, I didn’t know fear in interacting with police. I never wondered if I were overlooked for a job because of my skin. I was never followed through stores by associates when I was out shopping with my friends. I’m mouthy and sarcastic, and I see how differently my demeanor could be perceived if I were a black woman exhibiting the same behavior. Recognizing this privilege doesn’t mean you are ashamed to be white. Acknowledging an issue is the first step in making changes.

It is scientifically proven that young black boys are perceived to be older than they actually are upon first glance than white boys. This means that higher expectations for their behavior are placed upon them at a younger age. When black boys play rough, their behavior is more likely to be deemed violent and malicious, whereas white boys are considered tough and masculine. Boys will be boys, you see. In a study testing even the subconscious perceptions of participants, adult black males were perceived as more of a threat than their white counterparts. My eldest is about to turn 12; day by day he is turning into a man and statistically is perceived as more threatening. Maybe his predicted short stature will protect him? These are the things that I think about that mothers of white children don’t.

As any good parent should, I’ve raised my children to address authority figures, such as police, with respect. But, as a mother of black boys, I have to go deeper than that. We have to practice what to say, how to say it, where to put your hands, never to move without explaining your actions, how to appear small and unthreatening. I have to remind my boys as they grow into men outside of my umbrella of protection that they shouldn’t run down the street, even if they’re in a hurry or running late. They shouldn’t wear a hoodie over their heads, or travel in large groups of other black boys. All of these actions could invoke suspicion or draw unwanted attention. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of my friends and family members with white boys ever had to go through training as extensive as this just to leave the house! And, yet, it could not even matter because last week a man did everything right when stopped and was still murdered right in front of his 4 year old and wife.

I know many of you will not have even read this far. Or, if you have, you may have been coming up with rebuttals to each of my points along the way. I’m not asking to debate. I’m trying to let you in on my reality as a wife and mother. My hopes and dreams for my babies and their futures are no different than any mother of any color. I dream that my children will lead successful, productive lives. I want them to become great fathers, husbands, friends, employees just the same as any mother wishes for her sons. However, these ongoing incidences of violence and injustice serve as constant reminders that nothing, not even my children’s lives, are promised.

To my family and friends, I beg you not to claim you love my boys and my husband, and yet still try to justify all these other men being killed for being black. My perspective–my husband’s perspective–my beautiful children’s perspectives are very similar to those of the people who are marching in the streets to end this violence on ALL sides. We’re not against police and we’re not calling anyone racist. We’re asking that you at least acknowledge the problem and find some understanding and support to help make this country better and safer for my family and yours.

Thanks again to my friend Rikki Johnson for sharing her “What It Feels Like” story with us.  Speaking out in the midst of controversy is not easy.  It is courageous, and it is important.  Starting conversations and then listening with love, respect, and patience is important, too.  Thanks, Rikki, for being loving and patient with me as we discussed some really hard things.

Do you have a life experience that you can help other people understand?  It could be ANYTHING that is stirring your heart!  You can write it yourself, or I can help!  Please reach out to me to add to our “What It Feels Like” series!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Should Be in Jail and Other Things I Learned From the Tragedy at the Zoo

snake

When I heard about the little boy who had fallen into the gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati, I was fascinated just like everyone else.  Maybe it’s because I recall the hazards of raising two quick, mischievous preschoolers of my own just a few years ago.  Maybe it’s because we love animals or because we live so close to an amazing zoo that we spent many carefree hours there almost weekly when my boys were small.  Maybe it’s because we were at the zoo one day when a silverback rushed to the front of the enclosure and slammed his hand into the glass with such force that we all jumped in surprise.   Or maybe it’s because we just can’t wrap our heads around how these majestic creatures that seem so warm and gentle lounging in their artificial habitats have both the intelligence and the physical strength to break us in half.

Would meeting the friendly faces on the other side of the glass be more like a dream, or more like a nightmare?

After watching a few news stories and hearing the eyewitness accounts, I felt comfortable that I had the gist of the story figured out.  A mom was at the zoo with her child.  The mom looked away from her child for a brief moment, as parents sometimes do.  The child broke the rules, as children sometimes do.  The mom and I and all of America were horrified to discover that the child had fallen into the gorilla enclosure.  The gorilla acted like a gorilla, creating a dangerous situation for the child.  The zookeepers, unable to read the gorilla’s mind and having little time and a child’s life on the line, made a heartbreaking decision that will probably haunt them forever.  The child survived.  The loss of the gorilla was terribly tragic.  Everyone learned a lesson.  Life, as always, will move forward.

BUT THEN I started reading all of the commentaries.  I read one and then another and then another.  Each time that I finished reading one, a new one would pop up, and soon I realized just how naïve I had been to think that this incident was an isolated tragic accident, the devastating result of the perfect storm on what could have been an ordinary day at the zoo.  This incident was not about one little boy, one flawed enclosure, and one tragic loss.  There are so many lessons we can all learn.

  1. Zoos are a death trap.  Seriously.  Yes, I have been to the zoo probably 275 times in the past ten years.  My kids have gone to camp at the zoo and attended preschool right beside it.  No, we were never injured, nor do I know anyone who has accidentally or even purposely entered an animal enclosure without permission.  Yes, this child was the first and only child in 38 years to sneak into the gorilla pen at this particular zoo.  But these places are DANGEROUS, with a capital D, and a capital A-N-G-E-R-O-U-S, too.  Sure, they are marketed as safe places where kids are educated and entertained, but N to the O.  I now regret everything my children learned there and all of the wonderful memories that we made.   Totally not worth the risk.
  2. Children must be watched EVERY. SINGLE. SECOND.  Sure, we already knew that we need to watch our children carefully, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.  We are talking about the NEW standards.  Whooooaaaa, Mama!  Right there!  Did you just blink?  The new rules say that there is no time for blinking if you are responsible for a child.  There is no time to answer your phone, even if the school is calling to say that your other child just barfed on the playground.  There is no time to dig through your purse to find your keys or an old, open pack of fruit snacks to calm said child who is throwing a fit.  And don’t even think about going to the restroom unless your child can fit into the stall and stare into your eyes while you pee.  A good parent never looks away.  NEVER.  But don’t be a helicopter parent.  That is bad, too.
  3. The only way that you can accomplish #2 is if you only bring one child to any public place.  This means that zoos should have a one-child-per-adult policy.  Sure, this means most families will rarely get to visit, but safety is the goal.  This also means no more school field trips, but as a frequent field trip volunteer, I give this new rule two thumbs up.  And this means no more zoo camps, unless the camp has a 1:1 ratio of kids and teachers, which means that camp will now cost $750 a day.  Safety at all costs, right?  If it is important to you, you can save up.
  4. These higher costs will be more affordable and the new rules will be more tolerable if we just institute a law that families are allowed to have only one child each, unless, of course, the family can afford to hire multiple babysitters, in which case two kids might be okay.  This law will make it easier for parents to keep their eyes on a child at all times so that even when they are still unable to prevent a tragedy from happening they will at least have the opportunity to watch the event as it unfolds.
  5. Zoos definitely need to have barriers that are more difficult for children to penetrate, and it is essential that EVERYONE insists upon this because a zoo would never think to make changes after an accident like this unless every single person on the Internet pointed out that this should happen.  Also, zookeepers do not love people and they do not love animals.  It takes a special kind of person to be a zookeeper, someone who has no feelings.  I had no idea.
  6. In this case, the child was tempted to visit with the animals after watching them in the enclosure, so it would be best if the children who are visiting the zoo don’t actually see the animals in order to prevent such a temptation.  The most logical update would be for zoos to build a very tall brick wall in each exhibit that would be located between the animals and the zoo visitors.
  7. If someone commits a crime in our country, that person is innocent until proven guilty.  However, if a parent does something that probably is NOT a crime but that infuriates the public, then that person is most definitely guilty until proven innocent.  That makes perfect sense.  If you don’t really think about it.
  8. It is VERY important for every single person who did not actually witness a situation involving a family to judge the mother’s actions, even when the people who actually did witness the incident agree that the mother did nothing wrong.  If we don’t comment, the mother probably will never learn anything at all from the situation.  As we all know, a mother isn’t likely to torture herself enough by replaying a terrible incident involving her children over and over and over again in her mind for the rest of her life.
  9. Any mother who does look away from her child for any reason ever should definitely go to trial with a jury of her peers.  And since other mothers might be biased, the jury should primarily include people who have never raised, taught, or babysat young children before.  To be fair, there should be at least one mother on the jury, but she should be well known for starting sentences with “My child would never . . .”  The death penalty should always be considered an option, even if it is determined that no crime was committed.
  10. I should definitely be in jail.  For all the times that I called the Poison Control Center.  For the time that my preschooler was (accidentally) locked out of the house while I took a shower.  For the time that my toddler superglued his fingers together.  But lucky for me, those stories did not go viral.

As you can see, we all learned some important lessons from what was a truly heartbreaking and tragic situation that happened recently at one of our Ohio zoos.  If you will excuse me, I need to check on my children, who are playing soccer in the backyard without any supervision.  It looks like I will be seeing you in court, or at least in the court of public opinion.

 

Finding Elizabeth

The Elizabeth that I knew lived in a nursing home.  She was elderly and frail.  I don’t remember seeing her stand or even sit up.  I remember her as a tiny, fragile lump beneath the covers.  Her lips were dry, and her words were mumbled, and she was hard for me to understand.

I remember that it smelled in that place.  It smelled like everything awful, and it smelled like the chemicals that tried to wash the awful away. I was five-years-old.  What I remember most is that I did not like to go there.

We went there because my mother loved Elizabeth.  She said that something tragic had happened to Elizabeth once.  She said the people closest to Elizabeth claimed that she had never been the same after that.  My mother had fond memories of her.  She knew Elizabeth.  She knew her heart.  But for me, at five-years-old, the two of us had nothing in common.  Elizabeth, to me, was lost.

Until I found her in a box of old letters.

Letters

In 1944, Elizabeth was living in Ohio with her husband, raising two children and devoting her time to her home and family, like most women of her generation.  Her eldest daughter had already married and moved a few hours away.  Elizabeth was probably still adjusting to this change, one of her chicks leaving the nest.  But Betty was safe.  She was happy.  She was protected and she was loved.  Elizabeth missed Betty, but she knew that Betty was okay.

Her eldest son, Charles Jr., however, was another story.  The distance between Elizabeth and her son did not escape her.  She could never, not even for one moment, take his safety for granted.  Every joy was tempered by her worry that Charles might be cold or hungry, depressed or homesick, or, worse yet, injured or imprisoned.

Charles had enlisted to serve in the United States military.  Somewhere far away, on the other side of the globe even, he was fighting in World War II.  Her heart was so proud of his selfless courage, but it was equally crushed by the weight of her fears for the safety of her son.

Portrait Closeup

Elizabeth listened to radio broadcasts and read newspaper articles about the developments during the war, but what was happening on the frontlines still seemed distant.  News was not instant, and the images were static.  Life at home continued, as normally as possible.  She had teenagers to care for, Lewis and Maxine, and her daily routines helped to keep her occupied.

And she had letters.

Charles wrote regularly, and Elizabeth wrote to him often, as well, sending packages to remind him how much he was missed.  He enjoyed her gifts, like the peanuts she sent that he shared with his friends and fellow soldiers.  Occasionally, he asked her to send specific things that he needed, and she always obliged.  He shared funny stories, like the time that a deer sneaked into the barracks and ate all of the snacks, and he told her about the Abbott and Costello movie that they had watched for entertainment.  His letters were upbeat and positive.  War didn’t sound so scary at all.

Letters from Charles never mentioned danger.  They never described exactly what he was assigned to do or even where he was.  He mentioned that he censored his letters so that they would be approved to leave the base, leaving Elizabeth to wonder what he was omitting.  He often looked forward to the day he would come home, and he always signed off with the same encouraging closing: “Thumbs up!”

As the oldest boy in the family, Charles was full of advice, especially for his younger brother, Lewis.  Even from across the globe, he advised Lewis about girlfriends and class schedules.  He told Lewis to keep his options open with the ladies, even though Charles himself was clearly sweet on one young lady, Doris, whose name was mentioned frequently in his letters.  He asked Lewis to send him pictures so that he could stay connected to what was happening at home.  He told Lewis what classes he should take in high school and was clearly disgusted, even in the midst of war, when his little brother did not take his advice.

Charles was thoughtful, as well, remembering his mother on important dates throughout the year.  He must have known how much she worried about him.  His Mother’s Day message in 1944, so simple and plain, was the most beautiful Mother’s Day gift that Elizabeth could have received while he was gone.  Her tears, as clear as glass, left no stains on the precious letters from her son overseas, letters that she opened oh-so-carefully.

Mother's Day

Elizabeth must have read her Mother’s Day note a thousand times before safely tucking it away in the box where she kept all of Charles’ letters.  Gently touching that paper, running her fingers across his ink on the page, was the closest that she could come to embracing her son.  To the world, these men in uniform were so strong and so brave.  But to her, Charles was so very young, hardly a man himself, really.  Just a few years before, he had still needed her advice, her reassuring touch, her loving care.  She had gently washed and bandaged his skinned knees not all that long ago.  Yet now he and so many young men like him had been entrusted to save the world.

Charles Closeup

Days and months passed, and Charles remained at war.  Elizabeth was comforted by his letters, but sometimes there were long spans between them, and this made her nervous.  If she waited long enough, another letter always came.  It would include an apology for the long delay, explaining that he had been quite busy with his responsibilities, although exactly what his duties were was a bit of a mystery.  Each letter provided some  solace, but Elizabeth knew that by the time she received it, time had already passed, and the reassurance of his safety was actually old news.  As soon as one note was received, she eagerly awaited the next.

In the meantime, Elizabeth loyally supported her son from afar.  She hung a  banner in the family’s front window for everyone to see and took Maxine’s picture in front of it.

Flag  Flag in Window

And she clung to a poem (author unknown) that criticized the discontent of those who weren’t directly in the line of fire.  How dare someone complain about rationing when her son’s life was on the line?

Poem

In January 1945, Elizabeth received a letter with a little more information than usual.  Charles’ letters had been few and far between for a while now, but in this one he shared, “We are now allowed to say that we are someplace in the Philippine Islands.”  What a relief it was to know where her son was actually located!  She could point to it on a map.  She could imagine the climate and the scenery where he was.  “I have picked up a few more souvenirs,” he said, although he explained that he wouldn’t be able to send them for a while.  Someday, she thought, they would look at those souvenirs together, and he would tell her interesting stories about the culture and the merchants there and how much he had paid for the beautifully crafted and exotic gifts.

In Phillipines

As always, Charles had asked for more letters.  Over the previous months, their letters, flying back and forth across the sky and over the ocean, had created an invisible web that kept them connected, mother and son.  Even when there was nothing to write about, Elizabeth kept writing.  She would write and write and write, about nothing and about everything, until she could finally see Charles face to face once more.

And there, in the bottom of the box, I found them.  The two letters, stamped March 19, 1945 and April 16, 1945.

In the first envelope, Elizabeth had neatly tucked a letter full of updates for her son.  The news from home was nothing out of the ordinary.  Lewis has a cold.  Maxine recently visited Betty.  The snow has melted, and Doris performed well in the show last night.

But the war still loomed like a dark cloud over the small town in Ohio.  Charles, of course, was abroad.  There was concern that John could be drafted after being reclassified to 1A.  And Chet, another local boy, was being held captive in an enemy prison camp.  “Thumbs up” was now “Keep praying.”

Return to Sender Close

And then there was a second letter from Elizabeth, a letter mailed in March of 1945.  Elizabeth wrote about the recent flooding in the area and how the mail had been delayed.  There wasn’t much to share, really.  The news at home was mostly uneventful.   The letter was a bit mundane.

But then, the ending.  A simple statement that was dripping with emotion.

“Have not heard from you for 5 weeks . . . Write.  Love, Mother.”

And their standard closing, “Thumbs up.”

Five Weeks

And something in my stomach turned, and my throat tightened at the thought of Elizabeth’s anguish, her desperate wait for a response.  The sadness rushing to my eyes threatened to interrupt the story when I realized that here, in this box full of letters from Charles, I was holding two letters from Elizabeth.  Two love letters from a mother to her son.  Two letters that she had mailed to the Philippines.

Two letters that should not be in this box of mail that she had received.

Two letters that confirmed that what she had always feared had come true.

The Elizabeth that I knew lived in a nursing home.  She was elderly and frail.  I don’t remember seeing her stand or even sit up.  I remember her as a tiny, fragile lump beneath the covers.  Her lips were dry, and her words were mumbled, and she was hard for me to understand.

My mother said that something tragic had happened to Elizabeth once.  She said the people closest to Elizabeth claimed that she had never been the same again.  But my mother loved Elizabeth; she had fond memories of her grandmother.  For me, at five-years-old, my great-grandmother and I had nothing in common.  Elizabeth, to me, was lost.

Until I met Elizabeth, a young mother of sons, just like me, a mother who loved courageously and prayed steadfastly and hoped fiercely for the well being of her greatest treasures, her children.

Until I found her in a box of old letters.

We often associate love stories with courtship and romance, but maybe, just maybe, there is no greater love story than the love between a mother and her son.